Will US DOT’s Self-Driving Car Rules Make Streets Safe for Walking and Biking?

This week, U.S. DOT released guidelines for self-driving cars, a significant step as regulators prepare for companies to bring this new technology to market. Autonomous vehicles raise all sorts of questions about urban transportation systems. It’s up to advocates to ensure that the technology helps accomplish broader goals like safer streets and more efficient use of urban space, instead of letting private companies dictate the terms.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

The rules that the feds put out will be revised over time, and the public can weigh in during that process. With that in mind, I’ve been reviewing the guidelines and talking to experts about the implications for city streets — and especially for pedestrian and cyclist safety. Here are a few key things to consider as regulations for self-driving cars get fleshed out.

Fully autonomous cars can’t break traffic laws.

The feds say self-driving cars should adhere to all traffic laws. In practice, this means they’ll have to do things like obey the speed limit and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Following the rules may be a pretty low bar to clear, but it’s more than most human drivers can say for themselves.

Transit advocate Ben Ross points out, however, that this standard will only apply to “highly automated vehicles” (HAVs). Cars that are lower down on the autonomy spectrum — where a person is deemed the driver, not a machine — wouldn’t need to have features that override human error.

The guidelines mention pedestrians and cyclists, but don’t get very specific.

Among U.S. DOT’s core requirements for self-driving cars are that they will have to:

  • Yield to Pedestrians and Bicyclists at Intersections and Crosswalks; and
  • Provide Safe Distance From Vehicles, Pedestrians, Bicyclists on Side of the Road

Beyond that, the guidelines don’t say much.

Robert Schneider, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee planning professor who specializes in pedestrian issues, flagged this passage as cause for concern (apologies for the alphabet soup):

Entities should have a documented process for assessment, testing, and validation of their OEDR [Object and Event Detection and Response] capabilities. Within its ODD [Operational Design Domain], an HAV’s OEDR functions are expected to be able to detect and respond to other vehicles (in and out of its travel path), pedestrians, cyclists, animals, and objects that could affect safe operation of the HAV.

Scheiderman said this phrasing makes pedestrians and cyclists subsidiary to the vehicle and its occupants.

“I think that places emphasis on the wrong roadway user,” he said. “Pedestrians are more vulnerable then vehicle occupants when a collision occurs, so automated vehicles should be designed to detect pedestrians first and foremost to prevent injuring pedestrians and then to ensure safe vehicle operation.”

It may be that technology governing how automated vehicles interact with pedestrians is simply too undeveloped to include in this early round of guidance. U.S. DOT has said that some guidelines are intentionally vague or flexible to allow room for innovation.

“We need a lot more documentation and research from the pedestrian side to know what is the impact of vehicles in these initial pilot tests to see how they are interacting with pedestrians,” said Schneider.

Regulators don’t make much distinction between driving in a city environment full of people and driving on a highway.

Although fully-automated vehicles are being tested in Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley right now, and automakers expect them to be on the market in two to four years, the guidelines don’t emphasize the distinction between how vehicles should operate in urban, rural, and suburban environments. The word “cities” appears just once in the 116-page document and the word “urban” appears twice.

In a statement, the National Association of City Transportation Officials urged “that final guidance and rule-making be based heavily on urban streets, where people walking, parking, biking, and making deliveries create a complex environment for driving.”

In another worrying sign, U.S. DOT recommends that statewide policies on autonomous vehicles be controlled by a board that includes the state DOT, toll authorities, and transit agencies, but not local government officials. Unless that is changed in the final guidance, boards without city representation could lead to decisions that overlook the needs of urban areas. Policies about 21st Century transportation systems shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the 20th Century and exclude city residents from the picture.

Not much emphasis on vehicle speed.

Safety is the overriding theme of the document. So it’s surprising that vehicle speed is not discussed, given the extent to which managing speeds can prevent serious injuries and fatalities, especially in urban environments. If you search the document for the word “speed,” in fact, most references are about speeding up the regulation process or the process of bringing automated vehicles to market.

Schneider singled out this passage discussing the ethical calculations automated cars will have to make:

Similarly, a conflict within the safety objective can be created when addressing the safety of one car’s occupants versus the safety of another car’s occupants. In such situations, it may be that the safety of one person may be protected only at the cost of the safety of another person. In such a dilemma situation, the programming of the HAV will have a significant influence over the outcome for each individual involved. Since these decisions potentially impact not only the automated vehicle and its occupants but also surrounding road users, the resolution to these conflicts should be broadly acceptable. Thus, it is important to consider whether HAVs are required to apply particular decision rules in instances of conflicts between safety, mobility, and legality objectives. Algorithms for resolving these conflict situations should be developed transparently using input from Federal and State regulators, drivers, passengers and vulnerable road users, and taking into account the consequences of an HAV’s actions on others.

Schneider points out that at lower speeds, the need for ethical calculations like this would be reduced, because the risks would inherently be smaller.

44 thoughts on Will US DOT’s Self-Driving Car Rules Make Streets Safe for Walking and Biking?

  1. I for one am looking forward to forcing driverless cars to stop whenever I want to cross mid-block. How about cardboard cutouts of pedestrians suddenly appearing between parked cars? No more waiting for a line of cars to pass. Better yet, I think I want to relocate to some place where there are no fucking cars.

  2. Speed is my top concern. If all AVs are going 20mph, then I can’t really imagine a situation where ethical dilemmas can even exist. At that speed, even two cars colliding with each other head on would likely have a 100% survival rate for occupants.

    Take driver’s lack of patience out of the equation and add in some distraction (video games, computers, cell phones) and I don’t think many would complain about the slow speeds.

  3. The problem is that automobile manufacturers and Google are approaching autonomous vehicles on the individual car level. True efficiency and safety will not be achieved unless autonomous vehicles are approached on a network level. Think of it as a cellphone network, but instead of managing telecommunications, it will manage traffic.

    This is where organizations such as Streetsblog need to get ahead of the trend. Follow the money. Autonomous vehicles will happen, it is only a matter of when. We all have seen videos such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pbAI40dK0A that show intersections without traffic signals. What wrong with this picture? No pedestrians or cyclists. It will be very easy for municipalities to reduce congestion by simply turning up the speed cars operate on arterials. Streetsblog needs to realize that technology can remove the human element of motorized vehicles. Once the human element is removed, fatalities will drop to less than 1% of current levels. Have the vehicles battery powered, preferably from solar power, and pollution is reduced. This removes the two main evils of single occupancy vehicles. Streetsblog needs to lobby for systems that still allow for pedestrian scramble crossing phases at intersections, networks that allow for cyclists to operate on arterials, more care-free zones (Hollywood Blvd between La Brea and Gower), and variable maximum speeds in business/club districts (i.e. Sunset strip – 35 mph during commute hours, lane reduction and 20 mph mph during evenings).

    Sreetsblog needs to work with municipalities to create the co-existence of Autonomous vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. Otherwise our freeways will turn into race tracks, our arterials into freeways, and pedestrians and cyclists will be relegated to 1-mile square residential areas. Sreetsblog needs to envision a world with autonomous vehicles and how to make it livable; not lobby against autonomous vehicles and end up in a world where you cannot cross a street unless your in a car.

  4. Not sure where that is. Even Amsterdam has some cars. And don’t even get me started about those damn motor scooters in the bike lanes…..

  5. Missing from the guidance was clear mandate that preferred autonomous vehicle development should be for shared fleets or electric urban vehicles, ie: the kind that would reduce VMT and emissions rather than boost them.

  6. It’s a difficult problem, but I believe that it may be possible (once all cars are driverless) to have even slower speeds than that, but have it result in faster trip times for car occupants by removing all traffic signals and having the cars negotiate electronically at intersections. Just make sure the things are programmed to always miss pedestrians and cyclists.

  7. “Yield to Pedestrians and Bicyclists at Intersections and Crosswalks;”

    Does this mean that “jay”walkers are fair game? Death Race 2000! And surely bicyclists are expected on the road outside of crosswalks.

    It would be easier to just remove the “at Intersections and Crosswalks” clause and simply yield to pedestrians and bicyclists anywhere on the roadway. That negates the need to differentiate between crosswalks and anywhere else on the road.

  8. Sure, it would be great if self driving cars would drive the posted speed limit, follow all the rules, and make things safer. That is is what they are selling to help us all buy into this idea. But can you imagine the disappointment self driving car owners will have when it takes forever to get anywhere because their vehicle follows all the rules? Especially while there is a mixture of computer and human drivers. All the human drivers will be passing them in droves and the human passengers who are insufficiently passified will get resentful.

    One possible outcome is that the speed limits will change. Maybe other rules too. Remember it all about throughput in the end. That’s our deeply ingrained transportation culture. Does anyone think this culture is really going to change as quickly as they say these things will be deployed? Sure safety is being pushed now and it sounds fantastic. Once this is established I can see things changing in ways that other road users will not be happy with at all.

    Right now speed limits are set using the 85th percentile rule, based on the speed at which drivers (humans) go with some perceived level of safety. (I know this already disregards other road users.) So how would new speed limits be conceived if there are no human drivers? Will it be based on the capability of the self driving computer to be safe? We are told self driving cars can “think” and react much faster than the humans. I can image that capability being used to make cars go even faster because it is still safer than the human driver. This will be really bad for other road users who will be even more marginalized than before.

    Can you see the all powerful bike lobby flighting the self driver car interests with all there vast investments and hype?

    Beware of the law of unintended consequences as they loom large with self driving cars.

  9. Within cities, actually obeying speed limits isn’t likely to make much difference to total travel time. On intercity rural expressways it would, but within cities travel time is dominated by signals and stop signs and even traffic, so that even a major drop in top speed from 35 mph to 25 mph wouldn’t make a huge change in travel times.

  10. No idea what you mean by ‘network level’. With that many agents and that much non-determinism, control has to be decentralized – which is exactly what Google is working towards. An automated vehicle may or may not talk to another vehicle or to the transport network – but it must be able to operate at a basic level of correctness and safety even in the absence of such side-band communication. Macro-level safety & efficiency may be improved by networking but micro-level safety is based on individual agents making limited assumptions about the behaviour of other agents.

    Incidentally, decentralized control is also a central feature of cellular networks, satellite networks, internet – you name it. There is no other way of achieving scalability and fault tolerance.

  11. My point is that we will not see safety and efficiency gains until all vehicles are autonomous and linked into a network. When I say networked, I am referring to communicating with other vehicles and traffic control devices. I uploaded a video from the University of Texas that uses networked computers at intersections.

    Let’s use this assumption. I hop into my autonomous vehicle. I enter my destination (e.g. my Hollywood Hills to Torrance commute). A pre-planned route is created. For the entire drive, it already has been determined what lanes, speed, spacing with others along the route, and even what intersections I will have to stop for pedestrians. Once that is calculated, I will be informed when I will enter the grid and when I will arrive at my destination. As I proceed to my destination. similar to a cellphone network, navigation gets passed from computer to computer.

    Think of it as a cross between cellphone service and air traffic control. When you travel by commercial aircraft, the pilot files a flight plan. The pilot then follows a pre-determined route. The local airport clears you for takeoff. Assuming no issues at the destination airport, once in the air you fly non-stop to the destination, and come to a landing without circling. En-route, the plane is handed off to regional air traffic controllers, and the destination airport handles the final leg and landing.

    So, the autonomous vehicle is the pilot and the networked traffic grid is air traffic control. And similar to air travel, “Congestion” will be the wait time to enter into the grid. You may hop into your car, set your destination, but have to wait ten minutes until you can enter the grid. Riders may be able to schedule a trip in advance to avoid waiting. (Using my commute example, I may set up a weekday reservation to arrive in Torrance at 6:55 am. I may have to be in my vehicle and ready to go at 6:22 am or I loose the reservation.)

    There needs to be some sort of central control, or you will end up with hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles operating in there own self interest; just like we have now with human drivers.

  12. I don’t see how lack of central control affects safety – even in your fantasy world. Efficiency – sure! But even to get to your fantasy world, there first need to be an automated vehicle capable of operating with minimal safety standard, even if in its own self interest. This is exactly what Google is doing or at least attempting.

    Until basic safety by individual agents is achieved, that video of UT is pure speculative bullshit. Might as well be watching Jetsons for all the good that vision of the future will do us. You don’t construct a high-rise by starting with 101st floor. You have to know where to start. You’re basically saying that time spent digging a foundation is waste because its going in the wrong direction!

  13. True, you may not start on the 101st floor; but you do start with a plan. In eight years we went from WWII/V-2 rocket technology to the moon. We achieved the lunar landing using a computer that ran at 1MHz with 2K memory. The technology being developed today is for the transition period when autonomous vehicles have to mix with human drivers. Today we have the computing technology to create the network and retrofit all vehicles – just not the political will to do it.

  14. If you agree that there has to be a transition period and it will need technology capable of allowing autonomous and human drivers to mix, then why do you criticize Google for developing that technology? Do you think it is possible to get to your end-game scenario without the so-called transition? If not, then why is it ‘a problem’ that Google is developing it? Plan ahead all you want – but we ain’t gonna be able to build anything without a foundation.

    IMO, what you belittle as ‘transition technology’ is the gut of the system. It will always be relevant – even when there are no human drivers. There will always be cyclists, pedestrians, oil spills, fallen trees, animals running on to the roadway, network failures, rain, snow, black ice and so on and so forth. What the UT vision of the future lacks – but the real world contains oodles of is non-determinism. Planning for this non-determinism is the hard technical problem that must be (and is currently being) solved before wide-scale deployment of autonomous technology. Its a real technical problem – its not just lack of political will.

  15. Self-driving cars should result in MUCH higher expressway speed limits, probably on the order of 100 to 150 mph, once human-driven cars are out of the equation. Expressways are where the most time would be saved with higher speed limits anyway, not urban streets.

    Also, we should minimize any so-called transition period. Once self-driving cars prove themselves, human driving on public roads should be outlawed not long after. A mix of human and autonomous cars negates most of the advantages of autonomous cars.

  16. It also negates the need for traffic signals. Cyclists and pedestrians can just cross an intersection when they arrive at it, without even slowing down, confident that self-driving cars will yield to them.

  17. By default we should mandate that all vehicles be electric within a decade at most. The technology is mature at this point. The only thing preventing it is lobbying by oil companies.

  18. The transition period needs to be as short as possible. If you look at the instances where autonomous cars can fail, nearly all are caused by interacting with unpredictable human drivers. There are of course the other things you mention, but those are a secondary cause of vehicle crashes.

  19. To a very large extent keeping maximum speeds in the range of 15 to 20 mph while operating around pedestrians or cyclists should reduce both crash probability and likelihood of injury/death. It’s a given that an autonomous vehicle will encounter unpredictability (pedestrians, cyclists, falling tree branches, black ice, animals to name a few). It must be able able to deal with these things. The first way is by detecting the possible danger in the first place. You can use some combination of radar, cameras, life sign detectors, infrared, microphones to see what’s out there. The further off you can reliably detect something without false positives, the fewer evasive maneuvers you’ll need to take. In the end this is probably the most challenging part of autonomous vehicle design. If all an autonomous vehicle encountered were other autonomous vehicles we probably could have had them on the roads using technology from a decade ago. Obviously that’s not the case. They must reliably avoid colliding with cyclists and pedestrians. They must also avoid crashes caused by animals or poor road conditions a few orders of magnitude better than human drivers.

  20. Yeah, right! What happens on the expressway when you’re going 150mph and the vehicle ahead of you has a mechanical failure or a cargo truck spills debris on the roadway? Would a 100 car pile-up be an acceptable outcome?

  21. Mechanical failure which can cause crashes is very rare these days. It would be even rarer once we have fleet autonomous vehicles which are held to higher maintenance standards. As for trucks, we shouldn’t even be using them for long distance freight. Put that freight on rails where it belongs and an issues caused by trucks, including heavy road damage, go away.

    Note that 150 mph under autonomous control should be far safer than 70 or 80 mph under human control even if things do go wrong. It takes an average human around a second to process danger ahead, a few tenths of a second to react to it, plus a few more tenths by the time the vehicle reacts due to the cumbersome controls needed to interface with a human. An autonomous vehicle processes the danger and gets the vehicle to react nearly instantaneously.

    Finally, higher speeds are a MAJOR selling point for autonomous vehicles. If we want to encourage people to give up control of their vehicles so we can ban human driving on public roads, we need a carrot as well as a stick. The stick would most likely be much higher insurance premiums for human driving. The carrot is much higher average travel speeds.

  22. It will be as short as ‘reasonably’ possible – corporations are plowing billions of dollars in to it. It may yet not be short enough for your liking – tough luck! Two things:

    1. Autonomous cars will be held to a higher standard than human drivers in terms of avoiding preventable crashes and dangers. Think of the safest human driver you know in terms of skill, then add unlimited patience and unlimited stamina!

    2. Public opinion will not be sold over by mere numbers or probability. Global reduction in danger is meaningless if instantaneous personal danger increases – i.e. few & spectacular failures weigh heavier on the public psyche than many small ones (think Tesla’s auto-pilot smashing you in to the side of a tractor trailer at 74mph in day-light).

    Push too hard to shorten the transition period and you reach a position where actual (or perceived, doesn’t really matter) risk of death by autonomous cars exceeds human driven – which in turn restricts the uptake and further lengthens the transition period.

    Finally, for all your belittling of ‘secondary causes’ – I’ll guarantee that an autonomous car that *never ever* crashes in to another car, but occasionally kills pedestrians in cross-walks or cyclists following the law, will never be acceptable. Some of those secondary causes are deal-breakers and show-stoppers – partial solutions to those problems will not fly.

  23. The crash of the Tesla was due to error on the part of the truck driver combined with a failure of the car to detect the truck. However, human error was the primary cause here. Had that truck been under autonomous control, it never would have changed lanes without first checking if it was safe to do so.

    I’ll guarantee that an autonomous car that *never ever* crashes in to another car, but occasionally kills pedestrians in cross-walks or cyclists following the law, will never be acceptable. Some of those secondary causes are deal-breakers and show-stoppers – partial solutions to those problems will not fly.

    Keeping speeds to 15 to 20 mph on urban streets, plus having some sort of external air bag which inflates while driving on those streets, should more or less eliminate killing cyclists or pedestrians. It’s not a hard problem to solve BUT you just can’t have cars going at high speeds once they’re off highways.

  24. Rails are not point to point. Even when extensive rail networks, you’d still need freight trucks for the last mile problem. Not to mention – that kind of rail infrastructure would take decades to develop, even if the political will and money were at hand, which it isn’t. So lets just think in terms of the actual world we live in, what say?

    I’ve seen pickups drop garbage, and construction cones quite regularly on the free-way. Its not an out-there occurrence – it happens all the time. Sure it can be fixed, but these kind of upgrades needs both time and money.

    Also note that an 150mph there is less than half the time to react than there is at 70mph and space needed to stop increases quadratically. Doesn’t matter how instantaneously the autonomous vehicle brakes – it still needs 300m+ to stop from 150mph under ideal conditions, as does the vehicle behind it and the vehicle behind that one. The question is not whether it should be safe, but will it?

  25. They must also avoid crashes caused by animals or poor road conditions a few orders of magnitude better than human drivers.

    Is your reference driver a below average sober driver or an intoxicated/tired/angry/stressed driver who crashes far more than the ‘average’ driver per mile? Used judiciously, a driverless car equivalent in safety to the average sober/non tired driver could offer substantial safety benefits. If dealing with people not in cars who aren’t not following the law to the letter is possible, why would dealing with them in cars be so much more difficult?

  26. Trucks will still be needed for last mile delivery from the rail depot to wherever they’re going but they need not be going long distances on Interstate highways where we would have the 150 mph speeds.

    You’re assuming vehicles need to come to a complete stop to avoid danger. Usually changing direction is sufficient. It’s not like a concrete barrier is going to suddenly appear across all lanes of a highway. Some lanes will still be clear if there’s debris. A human driver might not be able to react in time but an autonomous vehicle can. It can also most likely detect the obstacle before a human driver does due to multiple types of sensors.

    And don’t you think autonomous trucks would have some means of detecting if the load is coming lose before it actually does? Abnormal vibrations or small changes in power needed to maintain a given speed are all subtle clues a load is shifting. A human driver probably couldn’t detect those things. Heavier fines for unsecured loads could also mitigate the problem. Given that you no longer need a truck driver, loads would be secured at their point of origin and they should have to meet certain standards before the truck’s software will even allow it to proceed. You really can’t liken the situation to now where we have amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing putting loads on trucks. We may even design trucks so the loads can’t fall out if they become loose by totally enclosed them.

    300m+ to stop from 150 mph? What about using aero braking where you have drag-inducing flaps extend at high speeds and/or induce downforce? I’ve little doubt you can get the 150 to 0 braking distances down to 100 meters or so while keeping deceleration rates to a tolerable (for a few seconds anyway) 2g.

    The question is not whether it should be safe, but will it?

    People smarter than both of us will most likely test for all the things you’re worried about.

  27. But even that technology (external airbags which operate reliably) doesn’t exist right now. What little does, cannot control where the victim will bounce off to after the collision. There is a big disconnect between your futuristic vision and current reality – when the disconnect is eliminated, then sure all those things are possibly. I’ll accept that these problems are solved when they are actually proven to be solved. A wave of your hand is not good enough!

  28. I’m thinking more from an acceptance/legal standpoint than a practical one. I’d personally be happy with autonomous cars which are as safe as a decent sober, nontired driver but the general public and lawyers might not be. Any crash will likely make headlines, as it did with the Tesla crash, even if the average crash rate was far lower than for human drivers. For those reasons, we probably need to be a few orders of magnitude safer. And I think that’s easily within the realm of possibility. Heck, I haven’t crashed on my bike in 2 decades and I’m far from being a computer. I just anticipate every possibility and give myself an out. Doubtless a computer would be much better at this than me.

  29. 10 years is a really long time in the world of computers. And the pedestrian protection need not necessarily be airbags. There are lots of other possible solutions. Just slowing to 15 to 20 mph will solve a lot of problems. It would even if we could get human drivers to reliably do that but we can’t.

  30. More ho-hum futuristic technology! Talk about it when it exists – when it is economically and technically feasible to deploy on a large scale. See how many new problems crop-up when you get beyond hand-waving and in to the nitty-gritty?

    > People smarter than both of us will most likely test for all the
    > things you’re worried about.
    Oh, I am sure they will! I worry about people lacking the smarts pushing those smart people in to doing stupid things in order to be able to deploy yesterday!

  31. Slowing to 20mph doesn’t just magically solve problems.

    If you are driving along in a residential neighbourhood and see a football roll across the street, you have to be prepared for what comes next. You can’t just continue at 20mph. If you see an owner chasing after an off-leash pet on the side-walk 500′ up the road, you have to account for the inherent danger when you get close. See a deer browsing about on the side of the road – it might decide to run across. The car needs to perceive these situations and prepare for them – go beyond just slowing down to 20mph. If a collision could have been avoided, then the fact that it only happened at 20mph and did not cause loss of life is not a sufficient recourse. And then there is a host of road-conditions between urban roads and freeways – suburban, rural, back-roads, mountain terrain, etc.

    You keep missing the point – it is not a problem that can be solved ‘in the world of computers’ or ‘on a cloud’ – it is a problem that must be solved in the real world and on a massive scale.

  32. It’s a matter of breaking them down into algorithms. To offer some insight, let’s take what I do in similar situations while riding my bike. I’ll perceive a potential situation up ahead, then adjust my speed and course to avoid worst case scenarios. For example, suppose I see a child on the sidewalk. My first reaction as I get to within about 100 feet would be to start moving as far left as possible to give myself more time to react should that child suddenly decide to dart out. As I get closer I do some quick mental calculations, as in if that child were to dart out in front of me right now, could I stop in time or avoid them at my present speed? If not I reduce my speed. Something like this isn’t terribly hard to program.

    If you ask me, I think the primary problem here isn’t one of figuring out what to do once potential hazards are known. Rather, it’s detecting those hazards in the first place. Tesla screwed up big time in that area with the truck crash. Using multiple types of sensors and preprocessing the data will both increase the odds of early detection and reduce the chance of false positives. The latter is important as well. You don’t want an autonomous vehicle slamming on the brakes if a leaf blows in front of it.

  33. Aah, now you’re talking real-world!

    I find both parts (detection and handling) to be fascinating and exciting. The interesting part about the algorithm is that we expect it to learn from experience and improve – to be able to go beyond merely the situations it has previously encountered in test runs and handle somewhat similar situations with a modicum of intelligence. And we expect the learning to be collective across the system rather than restricted to individual agents.

    How to translate information from the sensors to a world model. How best to represent and manipulate this knowledge system? How to share it? How to digest and re-assimilate across agents, so that each one can operate offline when required? May be not as critical as hazard detection, but fascinating problems all the same. I am sure people are working on these and more. But they’re far from a done deal.

  34. Being that I’m an electronics engineer, sooner or later I’m bound to get back to reality. Yes, this is a difficult but interesting problem. The nice part is as you said the system will evolve. The software will doubtless be updated regularly as we learn more, making it better as we go along. Strictly speaking it’ll never be a done deal. I would imagine even if we reach a point where we go from 35K traffic deaths down to single digits we’ll still try to aim for zero. And once that happens we’ll doubtless start analyzing close calls which don’t kill anyone just to prevent those.

  35. This is very much a windshield perspective and seems to ignore the reality of other users. You are promoting all the speed and throughput dreams. The capabilities of these autonomous car fleets is theoretical at this stage. None of this improves safety. In my line a work we say to error is human, but to really $%^*&^* you need a computer. I strongly believe that with autonomous cars we may (if properly designed) improve safety. More likely we will simply be trading certain types of human caused fatalities for a different set of computer generate fatalities. And with even less accountability.

    High reliability computer systems that depend on sensors are very complex and expensive. Of course you could always trade cost for less reliability, assuming there an acceptable level of fatalities. What would that number be? How about zero?

    Personally I don’t even want to be near an autonomous car going 150 mph. There is little margin for error and a very high consequence if an error occurs.

    There is no practical way to avoid a protracted mixture of human and autonomous cars. I don’t see the government getting away with a mandate before widespread adoption and the resulting disenfranchisement of those who can’t afford all the new technology.

    When you stand back and listen to what the autonomous car people are saying, it sounds an awful lot like they want a really good public transportation system. We could do a lot now with professional drivers and do it cheaper.

    So how do autonomous cars fit into an ecosystem with pedestrians and bicyclists (and deer, potholes, ice, construction, high crosswinds, police directing traffic contradicting control devices, etc). Not easy and needs to be thoroughly thought through. USDOT is only just making the first baby steps.

  36. Don’t forget that your kinetic energy is the mass times the velocity SQUARED. So in a crash, the difference in energy being dissipated at 150 mph is 4.6 times greater than is the same weigh car was going 70 mph. So when something goes wrong it is going to be more like a plane crash, no survivors.

    Complex computer systems are not always good at high-speed real-time tasks and can glitch. Again it is expensive to make systems that have high reliability or are fault tolerant. It is a tall mountain to climb to show software is 100% deterministic under all circumstances.

    Higher maintenance standards will be enforced by whom? This drives up cost which limits deployment.

  37. Wow what a dreamer. You really have no idea how complex these ideas are to implement, test, and validate. Who is going to catalog the signatures of all the possible combinations of shifting loads and be able to clearly differentiate them from all the noise from all sort of other sources? Also physics is not your friend in some of these scenarios.

    “People smarter than both of us will most likely test for all the things you’re worried about.”

    You mean a miracle occurs here?

  38. Reread my post. I’m talking about much higher potential speeds only on expressways. In all likelihood we’ll see 15 or 20 mph speeds in cities. This will make cities much safer and more pleasant for everyone than the status quo.

    When you stand back and listen to what the autonomous car people are saying, it sounds an awful lot like they want a really good public transportation system. We could do a lot now with professional drivers and do it cheaper.

    Yes, exactly. Individual car ownership is one of the most inefficient facets of our transportation system. Hordes of cars cause congestion, need to be parked, and are driven for the most part by incompetents. Autonomous vehicle for hire fleets have the potential to solve all those problems.

    Incidentally, we already have a much safer and faster alternative to cars, autonomous or otherwise, right now in the form of all types of rail transportation. Unfortunately most of the country isn’t dense enough for rail to be economically viable. That brings us back to cars as much as I wish otherwise. You can’t replace them with for hire cars driven by professional drivers. For starters that’s not going to be much safer than what we have. For another we don’t have enough drivers. A third reason is drivers cost money, which makes the for hire cars expensive to use.

    So how do autonomous cars fit into an ecosystem with pedestrians and bicyclists (and deer, potholes, ice, construction, high crosswinds, police directing traffic contradicting control devices, etc).

    The need for traffic controls vanishes if the vehicles are programmed to yield to pedestrians and cyclists. You don’t need police directing traffic, either. It’s easy enough to put up the electronic equivalent if there’s a temporary road closure or blockage informing the vehicles not to use some section of road.

    Not easy and needs to be thoroughly thought through. USDOT is only just making the first baby steps.

    Who said any of this was easy? That’s why we’re spending billions of dollars and putting lots of people on the problem. The alternative is the status quo of 35K dead and 2 million injured each year. I never could figure out how that was even remotely acceptable but apparently it has been for a long time. We may finally have a way to reduce these numbers close to zero. I for one will be thrilled when the last human driven car is off public roads for good.

  39. If you only have fleet vehicles, which seems highly likely under most proposed autonomous vehicle scenarios, you can hold them to much higher standards of maintenance. If a crash is deemed to be caused by lack of maintenance, you can revoke the operating license for a fleet operator, or heavily fine them.

  40. Best solution is to get trucks off highways altogether. This isn’t just for safety reasons. Trucks tear up roads. You avoid a lot of issues if freight goes most of the way by rail, and then is transferred to trucks for local delivery. It also avoids the need for all the complexity associated with determining is a load shifts or not.

    Another possibility if trucks must go on highways is you just run them at fairly slow speeds, like 20 or 30 mph. Again, that avoids any issues with load shifting causing dangerous crashes or with loads coming loose due to not being properly secured. Once humans are out of the picture, speed differentials between the fastest and slowest vehicles are pretty much a non issue.

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Last week as part of his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a $4 billion investment over the next 10 years to test autonomous vehicles and get them ready for the market. Two days later at the Detroit Auto Show, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that federal regulators would begin to develop coherent safety regulations for […]