Opinions Vary on Autonomous Vehicle Rollout

October 22, 2015  - By
Wireless LBS Contributing Editor Kevin Dennehy sits in Delorean connected vehicle on "Back to the Future Day" sponsored by ITS America.

Wireless LBS Contributing Editor Kevin Dennehy sits in Delorean connected vehicle on “Back to the Future Day” Oct. 21 sponsored by ITS America.

The battle over when autonomous vehicles will be on the road for consumers seems to be divided along government/big auto companies/academic institutions vs. such technology companies as Google, Uber, Tesla and others. Two recent Washington events highlighted the gulf in expectations for full autonomous vehicle rollout. The question is, why are the two groups so far apart? Funding? Safety? Cyber Security?

WASHINGTON — A panel of business and auto experts discussed the quick rollout of autonomous vehicles and the implications on business and consumer mobility at an Oct. 14 National Press Club meeting here. In terms of the time for consumer rollout, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin attended a DARPA autonomous vehicle challenge in 2007 and determined they didn’t want to wait 15-20 years to roll out a business, said Larry Burns, Univ. of Michigan professor and Google consultant.

Burns said that when he was the vice president of research and development at GM, it would have been hard to convince company execs and lawyers to go ahead with full-blown autonomous technology, while such technology companies as Google are forging ahead.

Burns acknowledged the technology has to work as the automobile is a complicated and sophisticated machine. “Google has driven over a million miles. They have engineers and technicians capture any real-time incidents and take them back to a lab to create computer programs. I can tell you the technology is very close,” he said. “I think we need to get a small fleet on the road in one place, because the technology has to be proven on real roads, to see what human drivers have to deal with. We have the tendency to rush to large volumes because we think it is the answer, but we need to learn on a small scale — and share the data between regulators and legislators.”

While Burns concentrated on the usual story — autonomous vehicles will dramatically decrease worldwide highway fatalities — he said that a new automotive DNA will shape a new market that will focus on the rise of electric vehicles and a sharing economy. “There will be more shared vehicles and the opportunity to created tailored vehicles. Average speeds are 25 miles per hour and most trips are less than eight miles,” he said. “It will change our dependency on oil, land use, parking and access.”

With automated technologies, a car will be able to decrease in size to 1,000 pounds, which allows an electric car’s battery to work more efficiently, Burns said.

Although they do not have an autonomous vehicle strategy, one Domino’s Pizza executive said that the technology would be important for their own fleets, but the franchisees would have to see a return on investment to purchase their own fleet.

“We own supply chain centers and drive 22 million miles delivering food to thousands of stores,” said Lynn Liddle, Domino’s executive vice president of communications, investor relations and legislative affairs. “The pizza industry has not been on the forefront of transportation. When we were founded, the goal was to get pizza to a dorm in 30 minutes. We are now into tech — quick ordering and texting through Ford Sync. Our Australian franchisees are using GPS-enabled systems that allow [customers] to know when their pizza is coming.”

Burns said he could see a two-person pod swinging by a Domino’s, hitting the post office and Fedex as part of the same trip. “The challenge of bringing goods to my door that weigh less than a pound in the last mile is formidable,” he said. “This is an exciting opportunity for the trucking industry. We may see this Class A trucks shortage of truck drivers [go away]. There is a great early opportunity for goods movement with a very good payback.”

One panel member from Securing America’s Future Energy, or SAFE, said the organization is establishing an Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, a group of industry experts that will assess the social, political, market and regulatory challenges of the new technology.

“It’s important to not be dependent on one fuel source, which is run by very high-priced cartels and national oil companies,” said Robbie Diamond, SAFE president and CEO. “This is the first time we have seen the convergence of technology and business models, not just the safety concerns. This is a once-in-a-century opportunity to have a better mobility system.”

Not Everyone Believes Autonomous Vehicles Will Be Ubiquitous By 2020…

Delorean connected vehicle at "Back to the Future Day" sponsored by ITS America.

Delorean connected vehicle at “Back to the Future Day” sponsored by ITS America.

Some transportation industry veterans don’t buy that the autonomous vehicle will have a quick rollout. While autonomous vehicles are great for short trips, they may not be the solution for families who live in rural areas, said Thomas Dingus, Virginia Tech Transportation Research Institute, at a Capitol Hill panel sponsored by ITS America Oct. 21.

“The bestselling car today is a pickup. Why would you want an automated vehicle if you live in the country?” Dingus said. “Some [autonomous vehicle] adoption will be at a lower rate, some not at all. We will still have drivers on the road. There is no doubt that automated vehicles are coming, but it will be slower than people think.”

Dingus’ Virginia Tech entity is part of the Virginia Connected Corridor Project, which tested autonomous vehicles on two interstate highways in the Washington, D.C., area recently.

One panel topic is the need for better highway infrastructure in order for automated systems to work. Case in point was the problems Tesla has been having with its new lane-control feature because it cannot read the on-the-road markings. “Automated vehicle technology doesn’t work when you don’t have good lane markings. People who said the technology is ready today are wrong,” said Hillary Cain, Toyota director of technology and innovation policy. “We really need to make better investment in our infrastructure.”

Cain also said that the industry is far away from achieving National Highway Safety Testing Administration Level 4, or full self-driving automation. “We are much farther away than we think we are,” she said.

Despite a nationwide shortage of drivers, one trucking industry executive on the panel didn’t seem sold on autonomous vehicles. “The [automated] solution has to be 99.9 percent safe. You have to prove you could have done better than with a human being driving,” said Alan Korn, Meritor WABCO director of advanced brake systems integration.

Also at the panel, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., gave his opinions of the Google car and the new Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, and said the new autonomous technologies will be disruptive to whole industries. “The number-one job at risk is drivers. But the most dangerous vehicle on the highway will be driven by humans,” he said. “I had the opportunity to ride in the Google car, it’s a bit freaky.”

In other news:

  • Driverless, the Business of Autonomous Vehicles, will be held March 22-23, 2016, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel-San Francisco Airport. More than 30 speakers will discuss worldwide autonomous vehicle markets, safety and security, new technologies and other topics. Go to www.driverlessmarket.com for more information.

About the Author: Kevin Dennehy

Kevin Dennehy is GPS World’s editor for location-based services, writing a monthly column for the LBS Insider newsletter. Dennehy has been writing about the location industry for more than 20 years. He covered GPS and location technology for Global Positioning & Navigation News for seven years. His articles on the wireless industry have been published in both consumer and trade magazines and newspapers.