Autonomous Vehicles
December 8, 2020

Moving to Electric Vehicles Will Not Save Our Cities


Jon Burke, the London Councillor for Hackney responded to Britain’s plan to ban all gas and diesel vehicle sales by 2030 by pointing out that this only addressed  half the issue.

In an opinion piece  in the Huffington Post, Mr. Burke reminded that it was not gasoline powered vehicles that destroyed communities but the presence and use of the vehicles themselves.

Outstanding issues remain with continued private vehicle use regardless of how it is powered.  Those issues include congestion, speed, automotive pollution, and the fact that the trend to larger SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) means more road fatalities.

This view is counter to that of many of the electric vehicle companies, who perceive the change away from the ICE (internal combustion engine) as being the way to continue manufacturing vehicles. As technology becomes self driving, it has also been thought that autonomous vehicles will provide transport for seniors, who need to retire from driving vehicles.

Mr. Burke quotes Jane Jacobs from the book Dark Age Ahead  who stated

“Not television or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities”.

It’s been suggested that the invention of the affordable automobile is the 20th century device that most shaped cities, to the point that car use factors into how we perceive space, time, independence and ourselves.

While we are in the second wave of the Covid pandemic in Vancouver, an article written by Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail in June showed that one-third of those surveyed expected to take transit less and use a vehicle more. The need for physical distancing and worries about  the proximity of people on transit has translated in a new reliance on the private vehicle.

That new adaptation of car use for personal virus bubble protection is part of a trend in Canada that has seen bigger vehicles dominate the market. As Matt Bubbers in the Globe and Mail notes nearly 75 percent of all vehicles sold in this country are “light trucks” inclusive of SUVs.  Cars, pickups, SUV’s and cube vans also contribute to nearly 50 percent of all GHG emissions from transportation. Large “heavy-duty” vehicles make up a further 35 percent of GHGs with rail transport contributing 3.8 percent and motorcycles .2 percent.

There has been an increasing tie-in with  private vehicle ownership and wealth. The SUV with higher seats, all terrain capability is marketed with a rugged persona, and available from all vehicle manufacturers. In North America Ford  will no longer sell cars, just trucks and the very profitable SUVs.

While using electric vehicles is noble, it still does not address the issue of congestion and the deadly statistics with SUVs.  Statistics show that SUVs with the high front end grille are twice as likely to kill pedestrians because the higher engine profile is a driver’s blind spot and directly damages pedestrians’ vital organs,  but this information has not been well publicized.

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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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