Synthesis Blog

I can’t believe the semester is already coming to a close. Our look into the world of autonomous vehicles has been informative and engaging, and I feel that I have come out with a solid grasp on the current and near future states of self-driving cars. Over the course of these few months, I have individually examined five sub-topics in the AV field ranging from government regulation to consumer culture. I then took a more in-depth look at the various factors that are affecting the process of widespread adoption of AVs with my partner Alex. In this final blog post, I’ll recount what I look into this semester both on my own and with my partner and offer some parting thoughts on the current state of the industry and what I see as key points in determining when we’ll finally get AVs in public hands.

My first blog, “Are Smart Highways the Final Piece of the Puzzle,” looked into the way infrastructure affects autonomous cars’ ability operate. It turns out that things like road maintenance and markings can greatly help or inhibit the sensors these cars rely on. This blog details some of the obstacles of testing AVs on roads that are not in perfect condition. Additionally, the post looked into “smart” highway technology, or the incorporation of technology into the roads themselves and sampled some of the proposals for integrating information technology into the roads themselves.

My second blog, called “Do We Want our Cars to be More Autonomous than We Are?” looks into some of the more abstract potential drawbacks to AVs. The blog examined the American cultural affinity towards conventional automobiles and how many may be reluctant to give up the ability to drive themselves. It also investigated some of the privacy concerns that self driving cars bring up including the risks of personal going into the hands of auto manufacturers and the potential for invasive government surveillance.

My third blog, “Semi Autonomy Isn’t the Middle Ground We Want” takes a look at the current transitional period between human and machine driven cars, which is marked by cutting edge driver aids like Tesla’s Autopilot mode. Despite these features, today’s cars are ultimately still under the driver’s control. The blog questioned whether level 3 autonomy is worth investing in when there is evidence to suggest that more gadgets and gizmos in the drivers seat can actually make driving more dangerous.

The fourth post I made was called “The DARPA Challenge and Government Involvement in Autonomous Cars Going Forward.” It detailed some of the early history of AVs in the government sponsored DARPA challenge, where teams ran self-developed autonomous cars in long distance races throughout the 2000s. It questioned the general sentiment in the AV community that the government is an obstacle rather than a catalyst to getting AVs on the road. The Department of Defense was the first major sponsor of AVs with the DARPA challenge. At the same time, the government has not been as enthusiastic or committed to an autonomous future since the DARPA stopped running in 2013.

My fifth and final blog, entitled “The Race to be First: Does it Matter?” looked into the still competition between leading AV manufacturers to be the first company to get their product on the road. It investigated what exactly the value of being first is and looked at a currently unfolding lawsuit between Uber and Waymo that sheds light on the cutthroat nature of the AV industry and demonstrates just how far these firms are willing to go to be first.

Towards the home stretch of the semester, my partner Alex and I examined what factors are determining when we’ll see self driving cars on the road. We broke these factors up into two categories; consumer adoption factors and manufacturer success factors. In we took an in depth look at what information and considerations individuals will make in the near future when they are tasked with choosing to buy or not to buy an autonomous car. Factors we examined included trust in this technology, cybersecurity, and privacy concerns. The companies making these AVs must grapple with some of the same things, but must also consider government legislation, safety standards, competition, and scalability as they develop their business models going forward. Through our research, we came to the consensus that regardless of how flawless AV technology is, we will only ever make the transition if we collectively decide on investing in a future without drivers. The most basic principle of economics is supply and demand. In the AV industry, there are numerous manufacturers supplying the hard and software. What we need going forward is a more defined demand for AVs on both the consumer and government levels. This means investing in new infrastructure that is suitable to self driving cars and passing legislation that encourages the growth of the AV industry. It also means that consumers, particularly in America, are going to have to reconcile their historic visceral connection to automobiles with a desire for a safer and more efficient future. Perhaps the most significant thing I took away from this course was that the technology for autonomy in cars is ready to go. I had no idea that companies like Waymo and nuTonomy had more or less fully developed functional AVs that are able to navigate the complex traffic situations of a modern city. These companies have done their part in contributing to the next great transportation revolution. Now the future of mobility as we know it is in our hands. We’ll just have to wait and see what we do with it.

 

The Race to be First: Does it Matter?

One of the popular discussions in the autonomous vehicle community is which company will be first to have their self-driving cars on the road. The countless news articles on the topic of self driving cars always include a blurb about which companies are closest. The ever-changing timeline of when we’ll see these cars on the road continues to keep the media interested, even if at this point there is a credible source claiming seemingly every possible scenario as the most likely path towards autonomy. I wanted to look this race to adoption from the perspective of the manufacturers and then hopefully get a clear answer to whether who gets there first is as important as the media would like us to believe. Is the so-called race a classic case of modern media sensationalism or is it actually a relevant factor in the development of autonomous vehicles?

Let’s first take a look at some of the reasons why being first could actually be an important achievement for whichever company can get there. A study conducted by AlixPartners LLC, a consulting company in Michigan, observed that out of the 50 or so companies that are currently developing autonomous driving software and equipment, only a few will emerge as “winners.” Many of the high profile mergers we’ve seen in the AV industry, such as that between nuTonomy and Delphi, highlights the trend toward fewer individual companies maintaining relevance. As companies join forces, they become better positioned to beat out the competition and achieve the evasive title of first to get their products on the road. But what does it even mean to be first? According to John Hoffecker, the vice chairman of AlixPartners, “The companies are all racing to be first so they can set the standard for autonomous automobiles much like Tesla Inc. has established itself as the premier name in electric cars. Those who lose out won’t die off, especially the established car companies. But they’ll be racing to catch up in self-driving technology after having invested a lot of cash in the race to be first and likely will have to buy technology from the winners[1].”

The allure of being first, then, is the ability to be the standard setter. In fact, this is so enticing that we have recently seen the competition intensify to new heights. A case study for this growing animosity is the tense relationship between Uber and Waymo, two leaders in the AV realm. Earlier this year, there was a high-profile lawsuit where Waymo sued Uber over the stealing of trade secrets[2]. The scandal centered around one person in particular, Anthony Levandowski, who is an important figure in self-driving car development.

Anthony Levandowski

Since his freshman year of college, Levandowski’s life mission has been to create the first self-driving car and he has been involved in many of the most prominent groups working toward that goal including the DARPA races in the early 2000s, autonomous truck company Otto, and crucially both Google’s Waymo division as well as Uber. After leaving Google in January 2016, Mr. Levandowski formed the self-driving truck company Otto. About six months later, Uber bought Otto for $680 million, and Mr. Levandowski became Uber’s vice president in charge of its self-driving car project[3].  Waymo filed a lawsuit in federal court against Uber and Otto, accusing Mr. Levandowski and Uber of planning to steal trade secrets. The suit said Mr. Levandowski retrieved information from a highly confidential server with designs of crucial technologies used in its autonomous vehicles in the month before he resigned from Google, where he had spent nine years working on maps and self-driving cars. The ruling of the case stated that Levandowski is now barred from working on autonomous cars for Uber. In a way this outcome is lucky for Uber given that their entire self-driving car division was at risk of being legally terminated. At the same time, given the video below, Waymo’s lawsuit may be less of a problem then its own engineering.

The judge also found that the documents Levandowski stole were not so much trade secrets as fairly standard engineering strategies. The judge wrote of these documents, “General approaches dictated by well-known principles of physics, however, are not ‘secret,’ since they consist essentially of general engineering principles that are simply part of the intellectual equipment of technical employees[4].” Given the massive and public lawsuit that came out of these documents that in the end were not as valuable as Waymo originally suggested, it is clear that these companies are willing to go to extreme lengths to burden their competitors.

The ruthless competition between Waymo and Uber shows just how far individuals and companies are willing to go to get their products on the road first. But does this race really matter in the long term? When I first started pondering this question and its importance to the field overall, I was confused. I did not see why it mattered which car was first because eventually, all cars would be autonomous and there would be no way for one manufacturer to saturate the industry, at least assuming that other companies would be able to catch up and release competitive products. I thought about other related industries for frame of reference and observed the first company did not subsequently dominate the industry. Ford was the first mass production auto manufacturer, and while they are still a titan in the industry, they are by no means a monopoly. Now 100 years down the line, the Model T did not position Ford as the only company with the ability to produce cars.

Cars have come a long way since the Model T shown above

The same happened with the smartphone. Apple’s iPhone was the first smart phone of its kind and came to define the segment, but now 10 years after its launch there are numerous competitors like Samsung and Google that have prevented Apple from cornering the market. Applying these examples to self-driving cars, I can see how the first manufacturer to get their product on the road will be able to establish public perceptions and set the standard of what people expect in a self driving car. At the same time, competitors are given the privilege of having a frame of reference in place before they release their product, giving them an advantage in a sense. All in all there is no way to tell just how important being first will be, just as there is no way to tell when we will see AVs on the road. It seems then that the value of being first to market is yet another of the mysteries that surrounds the blossoming self-driving car industry.

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-12/billions-will-be-blown-in-race-to-field-first-self-driving-cars

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/technology/google-self-driving-waymo-uber-otto-lawsuit.html?action=click&contentCollection=Technology&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article&_r=0

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/technology/anthony-levandowski-waymo-uber-google-lawsuit.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/15/technology/uber-self-driving-lawsuit-waymo.html?action=click&contentCollection=Technology&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

The DARPA Challenge and Government Involvement in Autonomous Cars Going Forward

When people today think of the big players in the autonomous vehicle field, they gravitate towards companies like Tesla, Audi, and Waymo. These are established names in the industry, all of whom are in pursuit of a production autonomous vehicle. One major player who is often overlooked though is the US government. Many see the government as a roadblock rather than a catalyst for the future of self-driving cars. There is a general sentiment in the AV community that one of the main reasons we do not have self-driving cars on the road already is that our legislation is lagging behind the technology and prevents companies from testing and developing on public roads. While the fact that one cannot legally ride in a driverless car on American roads today may seem to support this train of though, let us not forget that much of the innovation in the AV world today was actually sparked by a government-sponsored competition called the DARPA Challenge.

Flash back to 2004. The American military had for a long time been interested in developing autonomous vehicles in order to make ground combat more safe for troops. While the military has made great technological strides in the past in areas like space travel and the internet, this time around they decided to outsource the task to the general public. This same year, Congress authorized DARPA, which stands for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, to create a competition with a $1 million prize purse. The winner would have to send an autonomous vehicle across a 142 mile stretch of a California highway[1]. That year, not a single team managed to complete the task, and the most successful group only sent their vehicle 7 miles. Not to be discouraged, DARPA announced that they would run the competition again the next year and double the prize to $2 million to the winning team. This time around, the race would be a 132 mile off-road course. 5 teams completed the race in 2005, with Stanford taking first place and finishing the course in 6 hours and 54 minutes[2]. The winning car and a highlight reel of the competition can be found below.

DARPA continued to run annual competitions up until 2013, with the teams coming back year after year with increasingly impressive vehicles. In fact, these competitions really ought to be credited as kick-starting the past couple years’ focus on and extensive coverage of autonomous cars. Those same people who were first introduced to the AV industry through the DARPA challenge in 2004 are now some of the major players and leaders in the field today[3]. It is clear then that the government has had a massive role in the development of driverless cars. The bad rep that the government gets in many discussions may be a little ungrateful. The fact remains though that our legislation is not up to speed with existing technology. Furthermore, while the DARPA challenge was a fantastic booster to the AV industry, the government has since failed to continue its commitment to autonomous technology. Given the success of this competition, it is a shame that similar events have failed to emerge since then. If the government were more proactive about opening up military and defense contracts in the AV field, we would see major technological developments and advances that would trickle into the AVs that we drive, not to mention keep soldiers safer in battle, which was the original purpose of the DARPA challenge. Overall, while the military and government played a key role in getting AVs off the ground, they have not upheld the commitment to a future with self driving cars.

The SELF DRIVE Act was vague and more of a set of norms than a set of laws, and the Department of Defense has remained silent on the matter since the final DARPA challenge in 2013. All this being said, I believe that a renewed interest in AVs by the government could significantly lessen the time we must wait for full level 5 autonomy in the United States.

[1] https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2014-03-13

[2] http://archive.darpa.mil/grandchallenge05/GC05winnerv2.pdf

[3] https://www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/

Semi-Autonomy Isn’t the Middle Ground We Want

2017 will go down as a strange section of the autonomous car timeline. Today’s cars live in a purgatory-like state; stuck somewhere in the middle-ground between human and machine control. Brands like Tesla, Audi, and Cadillac to name a couple are currently selling cars that in certain situations completely drive themselves. Furthermore, we’re in the golden age of driver aids. These are helpful features built into cars that make driving easier, but do not do the job for you. Think of lane departure warnings, traction control systems, backup cameras, etc. Cars rolling off the production line these days are packed with so much tech that a lot of the time the average consumer doesn’t even know where to start when they step into their new vehicle. Today’s crop of rolling tech expos highlight one of the challenges inherent to the middle stages on the path toward level 5 autonomy. These cars are trying to drive themselves but we won’t let them because of a combination of regulations and the fact that the cars aren’t quite ready to let drivers safely fall asleep at the wheel. Once the cars can handle every driving task on their own, the various driver aids and safety features will be implemented into the vehicles’ software, but for now people are tasked with managing a huge flow of information from in car tech that can end up making driving overly-complicated. I want to survey where we are now with autonomous features on non-autonomous cars, identify some of the related problems, and look at how future iterations of increasingly autonomous vehicles will address some of these concerns.

A good benchmark for the latest and greatest in car technology is the new Audi A8, pictured below.

It can recognize a parking spot and parallel park itself without any input from the driver. The car can even do this while the driver is outside and communicating with the vehicle through a smart phone app. It’s easy to forget about all this cool parking technology though when you look at what Audi calls “Traffic Jam Pilot.” This system is the first level 3 autonomy to be seen in a production car, which is no small achievement. When the driver hits a certain button while driving on a highway, the A8 will fully drive itself up to 37 miles per hour. Unlike the comparable Tesla or Volva systems, the driver does not have to keep their hands on the wheel, so the feature really is the first of its kind. Here’s what Traffic Jam Pilot looks like in action.

All this tech seems great on first glance, but an unintended consequence of the increased complexity in cars is that people just don’t know how to use it all. In a report published by MIT’s Age Lab in September that sought to find if participants could understand what current semi-autonomous features do based on their name, researchers found that the vast majority could not identify a system’s capability based on its name[1]. If people are unable to identify what a system purpose is, they are certainly not going to actually use it out on the road. This sheds light on a real problem in the automotive industry, which is that people are generally unaware of what safety features their cars have. It is such a pervasive issue that the University of Iowa and the National Safety Council created a website called My Car Does What.org that overviews these modern features and tells drivers which ones their car has and how to use them. You can take a look at the site here if you aren’t sure what your car is capable of.

While it is understandable that the average consumer is not up to date on the latest and greatest features, in-car technology is becoming so complicated that even dealership staff are at a loss for how to explain and sell these increasingly complex vehicles. Wired Magazine author Aarian Marshall found that many car dealers have a concerning lack of knowledge about these semi-autonomous systems[2]. Not only did they not know how they worked, but they also spread dangerously incorrect information about the systems to potential customers, such as saying that a parking assist system brakes for the driver when it actually doesn’t or that a pedestrian detection system that only works above 30 mph works at all speeds. There are clear and dangerous implications to this misinformation that extend beyond the obvious possibility of people crashing because they did not understand a semi-autonomous feature in their car. How should a judge interpret a situation where a driver misunderstood a system? Who is at fault here? The driver, the dealer, or the manufacturer? Casting blame when things go wrong is a big topic within the sphere of self-driving cars, and with the current generation of technology, most people choose to handle the driving themselves rather than begin to delve into all these difficult questions. A 2015 study found that among 265 Hondas brought in for servicing in the Washington D.C. area, more than two thirds had their lane departure warning systems turned off[3]. While it seems counterintuitive to turn off safety features, I can understand why many people would rather not have excess stimulation from their car like a beep or flash when they are trying to focus on the road, especially if they don’t even know what the system is doing.

It is clear then that in some ways, the slew of tech that is wrapped around today’s cars are doing more harm than good. But how can we move toward that light at the end of the tunnel which is full autonomy for all cars? When Brian Reimer from MIT spoke to our class, he mentioned that some experts think skipping level 3 autonomy and leaping straight from level to level 4 is a better alternative. Level 2 incorporates assistance like cruise control, but not the autonomous features that say the new Audi A8 has. Level 4 means full autonomy within a certain specified environment or area. Level 3, which is where the A8 sits, has the car drive itself but mandates driver supervision and vigilance. What we’ve seen is that these level 3 technologies create a lot of confusion and aren’t even used by most customers. When the driver ultimately has full control, maybe it’s better that new cars retain a higher level of driver input until we have made greater advances in autonomy. Easy driving is safe driving, and if the bells and whistles fitted to modern cars are more distracting than useful, making driving more difficult and therefore more dangerous, then there is no need for them until we can rely on the vehicles to use this new tech on their own.

[1]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319269928_What’s_in_a_Name_Vehicle_Technology_Branding_Consumer_Expectations_for_Automation

[2] https://www.wired.com/2017/01/car-dealers-dangerously-uneducated-new-safety-features/

[3] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15389588.2016.1149698?journalCode=gcpi20&

Other works used but not cited:

https://www.wired.com/story/no-one-knows-self-driving-car/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories

https://www.wired.com/story/self-driving-cars-take-over-highways/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories

https://www.wired.com/2016/06/mercedess-new-e-class-kinda-drives-kinda-confusing/

Do We Want Our Cars to be More Autonomous Than We Are?

It is easy to romanticize autonomous vehicles. They will give us more time, grant access to transportation for those who were previously unable to drive themselves, and eliminate traffic jams and other inefficiencies that plague the current automotive experience. There are risks involved with all new technology though, and the general public is certainly not sold on the idea of a robot taking the wheel. In fact, studies have found that up to 74% of American’s don’t trust autonomous cars to operate without malfunction or to be safe from hacking[1]. The questions raised about autonomous vehicles tend to focus on software slip-ups or issues related to integrating these new vehicles into a transportation system that was built around the traditional car. What about more abstract drawbacks though? As cars becomes more autonomous, do we sacrifice some of our own autonomy in return?

Cars are an integral aspect to the American cultural definition of freedom. Our media is flooded with imagery and stories that link the ability to travel at one’s own will with a conception of freedom and autonomy.

For most people in this country, turning sixteen, when one can get a driver’s license, is a more significant milestone than turning eighteen and legally becoming an adult. This is because the ability to travel on one’s own accord has more of a direct impact on most American’s day-to-day lives than the ability to vote or join the military. For today’s youth, the advent of services like Uber and Lyft may dull down the importance of finally gaining the ability to drive oneself, but there is no denying that self-sufficiency in transportation is a massive step in one’s maturation. So where do autonomous cars fit into this? If anything, the age at which Americans can travel on their own accord will decrease, meaning more freedom for younger people. The equation of more mobility for more people should equal more freedom. But do autonomous vehicles really make us more free?

One way to define freedom is privacy. As autonomous car technology advances, the privacy that we have in our cars will quickly diminish. A commonality among the early versions of automotive autonomy that are already on the road today like Tesla’s Autopilot or Volvo’s Pilot Assist is that they relentlessly monitor the drivers. Many researchers involved in autonomous driving, such as MIT’s Age Lab, acquire swaths of driver-data from eye tracking to pedal input on how people act when they drive. This is a particularly poignant issue in the intermediary stage when autonomous technology is on the rise but not unanimous to all cars on the road. A ways down the line, when people have no input in the operation of the vehicle, there will not be a need to monitor the driver. In the current stage, though, where the driver can be more hands off while still retaining ultimate responsibility of the car, keeping an eye on them is crucial to ensure smooth operation. “We are making tremendous progress in instrumenting vehicles to know everything that’s happening around them, but there are just not enough sensors looking at the driver inside the car,” says Anuj Pradhan, who studies human factors at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute[2]. As Pradhan suggests, we are soon going to see a lot more driver monitoring in cars.

Mercedes has already unveiled a plan to create a personal profile on its customers that incorporates everything from your appointments and meetings to your heartbeat[3].

Their justification for this technology is that it helps their customers with well-being and vitality, claiming that the company can ease day to day stress. The biometric integration Mercedes is working on is not related to autonomous driving, but goes to show how closely our cars are starting to watch us. At what point do we take a minute to ask ourselves what a car is and should be, and what are the potential consequences of taking a vehicle and turning it into so much more?

There are some troubling implications to all this tracking and monitoring. Starting with what we do know, every GPS-enabled car can be tracked at all times by the manufacturer. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Ford Global Vice President of Marketing Jim Farley noted,  “We know everyone who breaks the law (he’s referring to speeding), we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.”[4] The fact that automotive companies can and do track our every movement should be obvious given that they design in many ways control the cars we drive, but it is somewhat troubling nonetheless. In United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court ruled that the FBI’s unwarranted placement of a tracker on an individual’s car is illegal. This means that in terms of our privacy as Americans, it should in theory be illegal for the government to exploit the technology in our cars to surveil us. The law gets hazy when it comes to this sort of activity though. Edward Snowden’s uncovering of NSA surveillance and the secret monitoring that was outlined in the Patriot Act after the 9/11 attacks show that our expectation of privacy is not always as strong as we would like to think. In these cases, the government utilized personal electronics like cell phones and laptops to gather data on people. As more and more driver monitoring equipment is inserted into our cars, including those that can monitor our bodily functions, who is to say that the information gathered by these instruments is always in the right hands. This also begs the question of whether this information should even be gathered at all.

While this may all seem hypothetical and a bit paranoid, there are real world examples of this type of exploitation of technology in cars already happening. In the Xinjiang Province of China, a semi-autonomous and quite volatile region, the government has required that all drivers install a specific satellite navigation system into their cars that enables the government to track all cars in the province[5]. In Xinjiang, there are frequent instances of violence due to extreme ethnic tensions, and the Chinese government has justified this unprecedented form of surveillance by claiming it will help them stop future incidents. China has a long history of keeping a tight grip on regions that are struggling for their autonomy, like Tibet and Taiwan, in ways that the rest of the world finds questionable. The exploitation going in in Xinjiang shows that even something as seemingly innocent as GPS can have negative ramifications in terms of personal freedom. As cars become even more connected and automated, we will hand over even the most basic functions of our transportation to a third party, and it may be hard to tell exactly who that is. Is there a point where we must decide to forego a technological advancement to save our privacy? Perhaps autonomous vehicles will be where we have to draw that line.

 

[1] http://www.thedrive.com/news/7017/majority-of-americans-dont-trust-self-driving-cars-study-says

[2] https://www.wired.com/2017/02/self-driving-cars-wont-just-watch-world-theyll-watch/

[3] https://www.mercedes-benz.com/en/mercedes-benz/next/connectivity/cars-as-the-central-health-hub/

[4] http://www.businessinsider.com/ford-exec-gps-2014-1

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/world/asia/china-xinjiang-gps-vehicles.html

Are Smart Highways the Final Piece of the Puzzle?

 

A critical factor in determining the whether an autonomous car can perform its intended function is the setting it’s operating in. Level 5 autonomy, the highest level, is defined as a car that can operate without human input in any environment. Level 4 encompasses the same capability while confined to a specific area such as a certain highway or city. On the technology side, we are well on our way to level 4 autonomy. Ford for one has claimed that it has a level 4 car that will operate in a geo-fenced area that is heavily 3D mapped as soon as 2021,[i] and we’ve been seeing autonomous concept cars at auto shows for years. The question we all want the answer to, though, is when autonomous cars will actually be on the roads, and the general consensus is that there is no general consensus. Maybe the answer lies not in when the cars will be ready for road use, but when the roads will be ready for autonomous cars.

In a bit of a media blunder at the 2016 auto show, a Volvo XC90 carrying the brand’s CEO as well as the Mayor of LA was attempting to semi-drive itself using its Pilot Assist function. It was unable to read the faded lines of the road though, which lead to a jittery stop and start sequence as the car repeatedly refused to drive itself, prompting the Volvo CEO to exclaim, “It can’t find the lane markings! You need to paint the bloody roads here!” while the world watched.[ii] According to the Department of Transportation, 65% of American roads are in poor condition. Potholes, misleading signs, poorly painted road lines, and variations in road signage across the country work together to make it much more difficult for a robotic car to know where it’s going. Some roads, like the one pictured here, don’t even have painted lanes.

Furthermore, has the automotive industry considered how it will deal with overzealous Tufts Jumbos who like to show their school spirit with spray paint? Consider the picture above. This problem is also forcing the companies building autonomous cars to develop more advanced cameras and sensors to deal with the confusing and misleading information they pick up as they drive, ultimately pushing back the date when we can see these cars in public use, not to mention the increases cost to the consumer as a result of this extra R&D. Given these challenges, there is a slew of companies developing complex radar and lidar technology like Mobileye and Velodyne that allow cars to interpret their surroundings on their own. But what if there was a way to simply give the cars this information without the complicated and expensive sensory technology?

Enter the smart highway. Think of it as a way of incorporating technology directly into our infrastructure, providing cars with useful information that would otherwise come from these sensors or cameras. It seems confusing when explained without context, so it may be best to look at some examples to better grasp what a smart highway is. One proposal by a Dutch design lab called Studio Roosegaarde incorporates special paint that signals the conditions on the road, such as temperature sensitive paint that only appears when it is below freezing, alerting drivers or the cars themselves that the road could be icy.[iii] They also proposed dynamic road lines that change to most efficiently direct traffic depending on its flow. Images of these propositions can be seen below.

These concepts are less groundbreaking even than some of the technology already in the works though. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has built roads with magnets beneath the surface that can charge electric cars as they drive though induction, and buses with this technology are on Korean roads today. What about here in the US? At the forefront of smart road technology is a 35-mile stretch of interstate in Ohio named the 33 Corridor after the road that contains it, US 33. This multi-group effort that includes The Ohio State University, the Transportation Research Center, and Wind River (an Intel subsidiary) involves a series of fiber optic sensors placed under the road that relays data to aid with vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, connected cockpit units, and smart mapping technologies.[iv] It’s first two stages of construction are already complete and it is due to be fully finished by October.[v] This road has broad implications for how self driving cars are tested. Autonomous car manufacturers now have a physical location where they can test their products’ ability to interact with smart roads well before the technology finds its way into infrastructure through traditional government funding, which tends to be slower and could in turn delay that magic date even further.

Ohio isn’t the only one jumping on the smart highway bandwagon though. In 2015 the Department of Transportation launched its Smart City Challenge where mid-sized cities from across the country would submit ideas for, as the DOT puts it, “an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.”[vi] The winner would receive a $40 million investment from the DOT to put towards implementing the proposed smart infrastructure. The very fact that this contest happened is a strong indicator that the federal government is getting ready for the autonomous car storm and encouraging smaller leadership bodies to get involved too. The 78 applications that the contest received show that the encouragement worked. Columbus, Ohio was the winner, whose “comprehensive, integrated plan addressing challenges in residential, commercial, freight, and downtown districts using a number of new technologies, including connected infrastructure, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, an integrated data platform, autonomous vehicles, and more” is graphically detailed below.[vii]

This plan shows that the implications of autonomous driving and smart roads go far beyond surface benefits like speed and convenience. The technology on the horizon in this field has potential to make massive changes in areas like social justice and mobility and environmental sustainability as well. The other cities that competed also delivered good plans that show just how critical smart roads will be for the surge of technological modernization that is likely to occur in American cities in the coming years. Here are some of the other propositions:

Similarly to the DOT, the National League of Cities released a policy preparation guide for autonomous vehicles this past April which highlighted the need for cities to encourage and participate in smart infrastructure investment.[viii] It’s clear then that within certain circles of the urban planning world, smart infrastructure is a buzzing topic, and it ought to be in any discussion of autonomous vehicles as well.

Many of the decisive obstacles in the way of level 4 or 5 autonomous vehicles being on the road today can be removed if we put as much into the roads these cars will drive on as the cars themselves. The need for complex sensors and data processing in each individual car will be greatly diminished if the roads can bear some of these informational burdens. While the construction needed to implement this technology may make traffic hellish for a few years, the long-term benefit of investment in smart infrastructure will pay it back many times over.

 

 

[i] https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/08/16/ford-promises-driverless-transport-2021/88826072/

[ii] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-autonomous-infrastructure-insig/wheres-the-lane-self-driving-cars-confused-by-shabby-u-s-roadways-idUSKCN0WX131

[iii] http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-04/smart-highway#page-4

[iv] http://www.thedrive.com/tech/11306/self-driving-cars-and-vehicle-to-infrastructure-testing-comes-to-ohio-highway

[v] http://www.33smartcorridor.com/fiber

[vi] https://www.transportation.gov/smartcity

[vii] https://www.transportation.gov/smartcity/winner

[viii] http://www.nlc.org/sites/default/files/2017-04/NLC%20AV%20Policy%20Prep%20Guide%20web.pdf

Blog 0: Intro to me and potential topics

Hello all! My name is Gabe Haddad. I’m a Junior majoring in International Relations and minoring in Political Science. I was initially drawn to this course because I’m a huge car nut, and have been sort of self-teaching myself about the automotive world for as long as I can remember, but have never had the chance to do something pertaining to cars in a classroom setting. I have a solid base knowledge of cars and the industry, but with more of a bias towards performance and the technology that can help a car go fast, not necessarily the technology that makes a car smarter, so this is definitely an exciting space. At the moment there are a couple areas that have been mentioned in class that stood out to me for areas I could want to go deeper in. One is the redesigning of infrastructure. I think that we will need to do a massive overhaul of how our road and highway system works. With robots behind the wheel, we would in theory not need stoplights, road signs, or street lights. If there ends up being more cars on the road in the future, our cities will need to accommodate that. If there ends up being less cars, we will likely shrink our road system into something less expensive to maintain. This is an article that gives a few different scientists predictions on how infrastructure will change with the advent of autonomous cars, and they are all quite different, suggesting that we are far from reaching a consensus on what influence new technology will have on our road layout. (https://www.wired.com/2016/10/heres-self-driving-cars-will-transform-city/) I think it would be very interesting to delve deeper into this topic and try to come out of the semester with a hypothesis of my own for what the future image of automotive infrastructure looks like.

I also find the legal aspect of autonomous cars interesting. My favorite classes at Tufts so far have been about Constitutional Law. I’ve found it very interesting to look at the intersection of technological advances and our 300 year old legal system. The Supreme Court has dealt with cases involving cell phones, thermal imaging devices,  and GPS trackers; technologies that were unfathomable when the Constitution was drafted but which the Court has had to apply it to. I’m sure that in the next couple years we will see some cases reach the Supreme Court, and I’m interested to see how the justices apply the Constitution to artificial intelligence. I also looked into the recent bill that passed that we mentioned in class and came out with some topics that could be interesting to look into. Something that stood out on the bill was that Congress created subcommittees for a set of sub topics like cybersecurity and testing. The testing category led me to some questions such as whether autonomous cars be allowed to test on public roads populated by human driven cars? And from that question, is it ethical to force people to drive on roads with untested robotic cars without their consent? (here’s a link to the bill: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr3388/text/eh)

Another area I think is interesting is the very engrained American driving culture and how it will clash with autonomous driving. I have observed that Americans believe that our vast network of highways and the ability to travel on our own watch. It is a way that Americans express their freedom and seems to be intertwined with the ideological pillars of this country. I’m curious how this country in particular will react when autonomous cars stop being a question of “when will they arrive” and becomes a choice that one has to make between normal and autonomous. I think this could also relate to the problem that self driving cars work best when there are only other self driving cars on the road. Once they are prominent enough, will the government force human operated cars off the road? Will the people accept that? I think this is a broad topic but with some further research and narrowing could be a very interesting social inquiry.

Besides these two topics though, I really like the idea of going in depth into a subject that lies more outside of the academics that I’ve been involved in so far. I don’t have much technical background but I’d love to go into a more about a more scientific area of self-driving cars, and I can lean on the knowledge I have of cars already to make the transition easier. I hope to get a sense of the other areas that have been brought up by the other students in the class and see if there’s a topic that would push me a little more out of my comfort zone then say the legal side.