How Far Can Driverless Cars Take Us?

Driverless cars and trucks—or autonomous vehicles (AV)—offer a tantalizing promise of safer and unclogged roadways. In 2017, 37,150 people died in accidents on America’s roads, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, up sharply from 32,479 in 2011, and far worse per capita than anywhere else in the Western world. And the United States has ten of the 25 most congested cities globally, according to the Inrix transportation intelligence group. Cars that drive themselves could reduce crashes to a small fraction of today’s totals, while moving people about more efficiently, in larger groups and at faster speeds.

For now, though, these positive outcomes remain speculative. Even as companies start deploying driverless cars on America’s streets, no data exist yet on whether the vehicles are consistently safer than those with human drivers and, if so, under what circumstances. The safety of driverless cars will depend in part on policies adopted by federal, state, and local officials—just as speed limits help keep human drivers from inflicting carnage.

Autonomous vehicles pose a particular challenge for dense cities like New York, which have always had an uneasy relationship with the automobile. But if cities handle the introduction of this new technology right, the potential payoff won’t just be improved street safety; it will be an improved quality of life for everyone—by car, on foot, or on bikes.

As it has done with many recent technological advances, America’s military ignited the autonomous-vehicle revolution. Back in 2000, Congress directed the Defense Department to set a goal that “by 2015, one-third of the operational ground-combat vehicles” would be unmanned. Following the directive, the Pentagon’s Defense Research Projects Agency, DARPA, began holding contests for driverless vehicles, which would be raced by their private-sector and academic sponsors across the Nevada desert for prize money.

The technology advanced so quickly that, in 2007, DARPA “made it an urban challenge,” Ryan Chin, CEO of Optimus Ride, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based software company, recently told an Urban Land Institute New York conference. The military had AV teams compete in a mocked-up suburban environment, awarding points for their vehicles’ ability to follow California traffic rules. “Most self-driving vehicle companies around today can be traced back to the teams involved in this challenge,” Chin observed.

Yet confusion remains over exactly what AV tech can do today. At a think-tank gathering held before the Washington (D.C.) Auto Show in January, Talal Al Kaissi, a representative of the United Arab Emirates, got car wonks buzzing when he announced (perhaps jokingly) that he had set his Tesla to autopilot and let the car drive him to the conference, while he wrote his presentation. Bryan Reimer, associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT, is more circumspect. Autonomous vehicles won’t be street-ready in “the next 12 months,” he says, but it won’t take “a thousand years, either.” Standard and Poor’s predicts that driverless cars will make up a 2 percent to 30 percent share of vehicle sales by 2030.

An autonomous vehicle relies on external sensors—camera, radar, and laser-based lidar—to “see” what’s around it. Digital maps guide it. Massive processing power enables the car to “decide” instantly what to do with all the millions of data inputs—how it should respond, that is, to what’s going on around it. The technology is fast-evolving. Each vehicle “learns” as it drives; as research and development accelerate, the learning process does, too. Waymo, the driverless-car arm of Alphabet, took six years to complete its first 1 million driverless miles, which happened late last year. It took just three months, in early 2018, to reach 5 million miles, and as of mid-2018, the company has logged 6 million.

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