Autonomous Vehicles
September 22, 2020

Autonomous Vehicles Still Need a Hand at Driving


In the last three years there has been a lot of chest thumping at how autonomous vehicles would infiltrate the market, and how fast this technological change would happen. I have written about the autonomous vehicle that drove across the United States. The vehicle achieved that only on the highway, and had to avoid being autonomous in cities.

While the technology is being developed for the trucking industry as an advanced driving assistance system (ADAS), it is telling that it can only be used on highways. The reason is that this technology called “Copilot” cannot differentiate narrow streets, oncoming traffic, pedestrians and cyclists, all the components at play in a city setting. Despite the claims of autonomous vehicle boosters that the technology is close to being adopted in cities, the sophistication of the systems to recognize and respond to the multitude of discrete movements in a city have still not been developed.

Some of the speakers in the excellent AARP Transportation conference held last week were even more blunt. They posit that the Level Five completely autonomous technology is being developed by software engineers that live in a certain part of California, are used to certain populations of people, and have designed software based upon their own experience of open space and streets.

There have been suggestions that the current technology does not recognize human shadows, and has difficulty recognizing the human form in darker clothes or shapes.

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In the “you just can’t make this stuff up” file,  the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP ) saw a Tesla driving on the highway near Ponoka Alberta. That’s normal. What was not normal was there wasn’t anyone at the wheel, and both the driver and passenger seats were fully reclined and the occupants sleeping. The Tesla was travelling down the highway at  speed, up to 150 kilometers an hour.

After being contacted by other drivers about this driverless vehicle, the RCMP approached the vehicle from behind with flashing lights only to have the vehicle speed up to 150 km/h from 140 km/h on their approach.

As Melissa Gilligan with Global News writes, the RCMP stated that “The car appeared to be self-driving, traveling over 140km/h, with both front seats completely reclined and both occupants appearing to be asleep.”

The speed limit for the highway was 110 kilometers per hour and the driver was a 20 year man from British Columbia.

While autonomous vehicles are not yet at Level Five which means they can drive by themselves, drivers go on the internet to find hacks around the safety systems. One hack is to tape a water bottle to the steering wheel so the vehicle thinks that there are human “hands” on the steering wheel.

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David Zipper from CityLab asks the question we’ve all thought about~if there are safety features that would make vehicles not as deadly to other road users, why are they not being used now?

In the United States nearly 40,000 road deaths happen each year, with 8,000 of them involving pedestrians and cyclists. Those deaths with pedestrians and cyclists have increased from 17 percent of fatalities in 2010 to 23 percent in 2019.

The good news~it is safer for vehicular occupants. Bad news~don’t be outside a vehicle shell.

As Mr. Zipper observes ” 40 American cities have committed to Vision Zero, a global traffic safety movement that emphasizes redesigning streets to reduce the likelihood of fatal crashes. But Vision Zero recommendations assume that drivers are playing by society’s rules; they offer scant protection if someone chooses to use their vehicle recklessly.”

Despite the fact that there is equipment designed to disable the ignition on vehicles if a drunk person was going to attempt to operate it, and collision deterrence systems, they are in no way standardized in vehicle purchases for North American roads.

Here is why~the automotive manufacturers have tied vehicle purchase and use into the concept of American “individualism and freedom”. You’ve already seen the advertisements on television where vehicles pursue the open road,  the country, the lakefront, some idealized place where there are no pesky pedestrians or cyclists.

In the same way as the National Rifle Association has mandated the right to own and carry weaponry, vehicle manufacturers have stressed autonomy and focused responsibility on the driver, not the manufacturer.

“Everyone wants these safety features on the other guy’s cars,” says Greg Winfree, the director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the former assistant secretary for research and technology in the U.S. Department of Transportation. “But not theirs.”

While vehicle manufacturers have enhanced the safety for vehicle occupants with  air bags, crumple zones and safety glass windshields, other innovations like speed governers  to limit driving speed has been shunned. While some automobile manufacturers tout the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) these are good for driving  on highways. Systems that are designed to detect pedestrians are not as widely available

I wrote last winter  about the automatic braking systems in the 2019 main automobile manufacturing models hitting the “dummy pedestrians a horrifying sixty percent of the time-“and this was in daylight hours at speeds of 20 mph/30 km/h”. When child sized dummy pedestrians were used on the roadway, they were hit eighty percent of the time, 89 percent  of the time if between cars. These findings also occurred at higher speeds and at night.

A simpler, proven technology is the use of the speed governor, which  limits a driver from accelerating beyond a certain speed.  The slower speeds increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists, and also lessen automotive emissions. The European Economic Union (EEC) is mandating that every vehicle purchased  in the year 2022 an beyond have a speed governor.

But back to North America where the car is still king  and this province where nearly 300 people die on roads annually.

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Well it happened. The pandemic meant that there was  a use for remote controlled vehicles that could deliver groceries. But surprisingly citizens have responded with their own resilience of using online services, having grocery delivery, or preordering groceries and having them waiting curbside for pickup at the store.

Canadians have been slow to become accustomed to  online ordering, but Canada Post has been experiencing parcel deliveries of up to 1.8 million parcels a day, similar to Christmas rush levels. Consumers who have never made an online purchase make up 78 percent of customer volume with Shopify merchants, as outlined in this CBC story by Diane Buckner.

But back to those autonomous vehicles. The shuttering of the economy for the pandemic has meant  several of the factories that promised things like  a “fleet of self-driving taxis” by 2020  (General Motors) and  “one  million autonomous robotaxis” on the road by the end of  the year” (Tesla) have had to reframe those predictions.

As reports Waymo, a Google company is the company doing well with autonomous vehicles and is the development leader. it is also the only “fully driverless vehicle”  taking passengers.

I have written before how autonomous vehicles were to be the  shiny new  pennies pledging to undertake all the  pesky logistics of driving. But as reported earlier in  The the most important aspect for any vehicle on the road is the ability to recognize and avoid vulnerable road users. You know, those pedestrians, cyclists and other wheelers that are using the street without the protection of a vehicular steel shell.

And we are not there yet.  These vehicles have challenges in “so-called edge cases”. That includes weather,  and “when someone else on the road—be it a driver, cyclist or electric scooter pilot—does something unexpected, as humans often do. The halting nature of development has delivered a large dose of humility to the world’s whip-smart mobility experts, who are showing an increased willingness to form posses and work together”.

There are “islands of autonomy” where groceries are delivered by driverless pods, and where seniors can zip around a gated retirement community.

But the investment of $14 billion US dollars has still not produced a truly autonomous vehicle.

While the field of factories will narrow, the use will broaden with online “grocery to gourmet” expansion. One analyst estimated that the use of self driving vehicles for grocery delivery would cut in half conventional trucking freight costs.

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Sad news: Car2Go (ShareNow) is shutting down its North American operations (and pulling out of a few European cities like London and Florence).

The company cited operational costs and the lack of necessary infrastructure to support new technology, like electric vehicle car-sharing, for the decision.

The company says it has more than 230,000 users in Vancouver.

“Vancouver was really very, very attractive for Car2Go,” Gordon Price of the SFU Centre for Dialogue said. “We were the car-sharing capital of North America, maybe the world. It wasn’t true in the rest of North America.

We made the switch to car-share when we scrapped our car with an incentive from the Province – for a year of Car2Go!  Loved it, especially the SmartCar which could fit into those tiny left-over spaces in the West End.

Along with Evo and Modo, Car2Go was making a difference: Vancouverites in dense neighbourhoods were making the switch.  There was even sign of ‘share-turation’ on some blocks. (Hopefully, Evo and Modo can fill some of the void.)

Losing money over time is never a winning business strategy, but Daimler (Car2Go’s parent) strategy may have been to dominate the market prior to the availability of autonomous cars.  They got the timing wrong on that (indeed, it may be a lot longer before self-driving cars are seen in dense, complex cities) and are moving away from research and development of autonomous vehicles elsewhere.

It doesn’t always pay to be first.

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It was only a few years ago when semi autonomous vehicles were the shiny pennies pledging to undertake all the  pesky logistics of driving. But as reported in The things are not quite as touted, even with the Automatic Emergency Braking Systems. These vehicles are testing out as unconscious killers of vulnerable road users, who are being slaughtered at an increasing rate on roads in North America.

The most important aspect for any vehicle on the road is the ability to recognize and avoid vulnerable road users, those pedestrians, cyclists and other wheelers that are using the street without the protection of a vehicular steel shell.

It appears that while car companies fill their vehicles with toys (I have already written about the huge dashboard reader screens) the technology is still not reliable to keep everyone safe on the road. That’s the nice way of saying that today’s semi autonomous vehicles are murderous for other road users despite the fact that they have been portrayed as being logically smarter and safer than human drivers.

This report by the American Automobile Association (AAA) looked at the automatic braking systems of semi autonomous vehicles from different makers when confronted with a pedestrian (thankfully they used mannequins).  Four different 2019 model vehicles were used~a Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord, Tesla Model 3, and Toyota Camry.

Unbelievably  the vehicles hit the dummy pedestrians a horrifying sixty percent of the time-“and this was in daylight hours at speeds of 20 mph/30 km/h”. When child sized dummy pedestrians were used on the roadway, they were hit eighty percent of the time, 89 percent  of the time if between cars.These findings also occurred at higher speeds and at night.

Pedestrian fatalities were even worse if the victim had their back towards vehicles. The Truth About Cars writes “The researchers tested several other scenarios, including encountering a pedestrian after a right-hand turn and two adults standing alongside the road with their backs to traffic. The latter scenario resulted in a collision 80 percent of the time, while the former yielded a 100 percent collision rate.”

Thankfully in their conclusions  of the study AAA states that the high-tech detection systems are inadequate, with none of the various vehicles tested being able to detect an adult walking on the roadway at night. Only one vehicle was able to detect that an object was even in front of the car, but it still did not brake.

As Allison Arieff writes in the New York Times –while over 80 billion dollars has been spent in the last five years on “smart” or connected cars and AVs supposedly to make them safer, “investing in the car of the future is investing in the wrong problem. We need to be thinking about how we can create a world with fewer cars.”

In 2018 6,227 pedestrians (that’s the population of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia)  were killed in the United States.That’ is an increase of 4 percent from 2017. Canada is also in the club, being one of only seven industrialized nations in the world where pedestrian deaths are increasing.

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Dean A recommended this piece in the New York Times:

Among the safety measures proposed by car companies are encouraging pedestrians and bicyclists to use R.F.I.D. tags, which emit signals that cars can detect. This means it’s becoming the pedestrian’s responsibility to avoid getting hit. But if keeping people safe means putting the responsibility on them (or worse, criminalizing walking and biking), we need to think twice about the technology we’re developing. …


Peter Ladner was motivated to write this response with respect to our bike routes:

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In an emergency I had the opportunity to drive  a new Tesla from Vancouver to the California border for a friend. It was a chance to understand a bit more about the Internet of Things (IOT) and also learn more about the private community club of Tesla. While you can read many articles about how the vehicles brake and about the internal features and innovations, there’s not that much written about the interconnected linkages Tesla has created at their “refuelling” stations, or the data they are collected from Tesla drivers.

First the stuff every Tesla driver will tell you~it cost $3.00 to drive from Vancouver to the California border return, and that is the cost of connecting at Tesla’s charging system. The Tesla Supercharger network cannot be used by other electric cars, although Tesla does provide an adapter so their vehicles can use other Level Two AC chargers.

The Tesla Supercharger installations look like an army of gas pumps  strategically located so you don’t feel silly or out of place charging a Tesla up at 4:00 a.m. in the morning. The network across North America of these charging stations is a key investment in selling the vehicles for long distance.

You can see a map of the 14,000 charging stations across North America here.Supposedly you can charge a car completely at a supercharger in 30 minutes. My experience was it normally took a bit longer than that.

The locations of the super chargers are near shopping malls and well-lit suburban hotels, with 24 hour operating restaurants close by.  People driving Teslas into the charging stations all seem to emerge with their own ipads in hand looking thoughtful. If you overstay at a charging station, you are curtly reminded of your transgression by notification from Tesla, and then fined. There’s also a culture in place to ensure you move your vehicle out of the charging station promptly, even if the entire place is vacant.

But back to the Internet of Things~during the recent hurricane in Florida, Tesla by software update allowed owners  in those areas impacted to drive longer distances for a certain period of time.

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We live in a time where simple solutions to problems are often overlooked for technological answers. It’s no surprise given that many people perceive technology as helpful, and in many instances it is. But it’s always important to figure out what the problem is that a technological answer seeks to solve.

Take a look at this installation at a traffic intersection in Singapore that allows a senior citizen (who has the requisite senior citizen’s card) to “swipe” the pedestrian crossing button to get up to thirteen seconds extra crossing time on a busy street. The “Green Man Plus” system was introduced in 2009 for seniors and “those with disabilities” to be allowed extra crossing time. As ABC reporter Stephen Dziedzic stated on Twitter

“At some Singapore intersections you can swipe your Senior Card and the crossing light will stay green for a little longer, giving you extra time to reach the other side of the road. I find this very touching.”


While the Twitterverse thought this was indeed a very good idea to enhance equity, the question really is who is equal here? And instead of installing hundreds of these pedestrian installations that require a card to activate them, why not increase the crossing time on the timing of the light cycle in favour of all pedestrians, no matter who they are or when they are crossing? If people using the sidewalks and crosswalks are truly the most valued and most vulnerable users, why not treat them that way, and allow everyone a longer crossing time without a card to ask permission?

Locally, another example of technological invention also focuses on the wrong end of the problem.

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One of the world’s most iconic vans is making a comeback…

But this time, it’s electric. Slated for production by 2022, the “electric microbus” is one of five new electric models in Volkswagen’s ID. series — a family of 100% electric vehicles, which includes a crossover, a compact, a sedan, and of course, the van.

Just like the classic VW van, there will be room for up to seven people with an adjustable interior that includes a table and movable seats. Volkswagen also intends on enabling all ID. series models with a fully autonomous feature option.

Distance, a major concern of many when it comes to purchasing an electric vehicle, is no longer an issue. The van will have an electric range of 400 to 600 km, comparable to pretty much any gas-powered vehicle. Further, Volkswagen has partnered with Electrify Canada (partnership formed by Electrify America in cooperation with Volkswagen Canada) to build ultra-fast electric vehicle charging infrastructure to give Canadians the reliability they need to confidently make the switch to electric. Planning and deployment are well underway, including network routes — you can check out the Vancouver to Calgary route here.

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