What do you think when you think of autonomous vehicles? The future? The “Jetsons” coming to life? Scary? A way to save lives on U.S. roads and reduce congestion?
On the 25th of September, California Governor Jerry Brown did something bold: he signed California Senate Bill 1298 legalizing autonomous (“driverless”) cars for further evaluation and testing within a two-year period. “SB 1298 allows driverless cars to be operated on public roads for testing purposes, provided that each vehicle has a fully licensed and bonded operator in the driver’s seat to take control if necessary. The bill also instructs the [California] Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations that govern the licensing, bonding, testing and operation of autonomous vehicle technology.”
For those not familiar with autonomous cars, such as the Google car, they are driverless vehicles that can drive wherever the occupants wish to go over normal roads or specialized roads. The rider speaks or types in a desired destination. Software that is integrated with gps mapping program (e.g., Google maps) controls the drive train, braking, and steering of the vehicle. A link to a You Tube video on the Google car is here. Google, headquartered in Mountain View, California, was and is a big proponent of the bill. Gov. Brown signed the bill at a ceremony at Google’s headquarters.
Google claims driverless cars have logged in over 300,000 miles without an accident. But Wikipedia’s Google car page cites two alleged accidents: the first being where the human driver allegedly took control at an intersection and the second being when a Google car was rear-ended at a traffic light.
Could such a vehicle be used up here in Washington? Yes, if laws were changed to allow such an autonomous (driverless) car to legally be on the roads with other vehicles. Such approval is not likely to come about without lobbying and, more importantly, a showing that it is safe. So what are the advantages?
The biggest advantage of autonomous cars is the promise of reduced accidents, which is not only good from a public safety standpoint, but car accidents are the primary reason for chronic congestion. Congestion hinders economic growth. When congestion is chronic and stifling (think sections on I-5), employers aren’t interested in expanding.
Another exciting advantage could be the promise of having safe 24/7 “driverless taxi service” for those who are elderly, sight impaired, children, intoxicated, or distracted (text or nap away!).
Single autonomous cars could use standard roads and highways—no special infrastructure needed.
But what about synchronizing a group of autonomous vehicles? Many experts think that synchronized autonomous cars can provide safe, high-volume, high-speed transportation and eliminate or greatly reduce accidents (save lives!) and congestion. Now, there is something to get economic development folks, department of transportation heads, transportation policy advisors, employers, —and future governors— excited about. But such synchronized high-speed, high-volume autonomous vehicles would need to be proved to be safe. Our region needs to consider implementing a proof of concept test, perhaps a ‘one-mile test road’ in a few places in Washington State. Think a test road at the Microsoft campus or a joint development with the University of Washington and private industry. Or how about a joint development project in Eastern Washington involving Avista, WSU, and PNNL?
We could transform transportation, our Northwest economy, and make huge improvements to public safety, reduce congestion, and improve human production—if the promise is real. Then we would see that autonomous vehicles are a friend rather than a bogey man or foe. The idea is worthy of a grant to test it under real conditions.