July 13, 2018

Blog: Self-Driving Cars & Urbanization

Thanks to John Graham, architect with Graham Sherwin Studio, for this recommendation of Along for the Ride, a new blog on self-driving cars and urbanization by Sarah Barnes:

I’m pretty sure some Price Tags people will want to know about this…written by an urbanist friend in London (ex-UBC urban geography, ex-London School of Economics Urban Planning Masters program).

It’s a fantastic weekly summary of all things vehicular, particularly automated. She’s a delightful writer too.

Barnes was until recently in automated vehicle policy and planning at Siemens, and is now with Beryl, a London-based urban cycling technology company developing lighting products and systems.

Subscribe to Along for the Ride here.

Image courtesy of Siemens PLM Software.

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Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary crash report related to the pedestrian fatality caused by the autonomous vehicle (AV) in Tempe, Arizona this past March.

Trust The Economist to wade right into the muddy waters; since this report has not received much coverage in the rest of the media, we’ll join the fray.

The NTSB confirmed what has been previously reported — the AV’s braking system had been disabled. But why?

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From Bloomberg: “Who’s Winning the Self Driving Car Race?
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicts that robo-taxis will help the ride-hailing and -sharing business grow from $5 billion in revenue today to $285 billion by 2030. There are grand hopes for this business. Without drivers, operating margins could be in the 20 percent range, more than twice what carmakers generate right now. If that kind of growth and profit come to pass—very big ifs—it would be almost three times what GM makes in a year. And that doesn’t begin to count the money to be made in delivery.

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I’ve been predicting the rise of the TSP – Transportation Service Providers: potentially huge integrated companies providing consumers with transportation options and replacements for personal car ownership. Like Ford fleets:
From engadget:

Ford’s Jim Farley told the Financial Times in an interview that the automaker’s self-driving car network will be running “at scale” in 2021. It launched its recent Miami pilot precisely so that it “can scale [by] then,” the executive said, not to merely get the ball rolling. Farley also stressed that this would be a truly Ford-run service. While Ford does have self-driving car partnerships with companies like Lyft, it intends to “own the fleet” for its own services.
… it’s not entirely surprising that the company would push for a large, in-house driverless network. Its leadership has repeatedly talked about preparing for the decline of car ownership, and that means a shift toward services (such as its on-demand commuter vans) instead of pure car sales. If it runs its own fleet, it has a reliable business even if vehicle sales to other customers eventually dry up.

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In March the Province of British Columbia enacted new rules for drivers of eighty years of age or more. Those drivers must have a doctor’s note submitted every two years stating they are “medically competent” and must  undertake an on-road test or road assessment if required.  This is similar to the Province of Ontario which instituted a licence renewal every two years for drivers over eighty requiring a vision test, a driving rules class, a driving history review, potentially retaking a driver’s test and detailing medical history.
Price Tags Vancouver has previously written about the fact that seniors are being targeted as prime users of autonomous vehicles, with AVs touted as a way to keep seniors mobile. Data collected from Statistics Canada in 2009 suggest that close to 28 per cent of drivers over 65 years and older are driving vehicles with some form of dementia. Statistics Canada data from 2012 shows that over the age of 70 years seniors have a higher accident rate per kilometre than any other group except for young male motorists. Seniors are also more likely to die in a vehicular crash.
A poll conducted by State Farm in March 2017 found that “55 per cent of respondents would keep driving past 80 years of age. About 29 per cent would give up their license between ages 80-84, 16 per cent would stop driving before 90 years of age, while 10 per cent would keep driving after 90.” 
The challenge is finding a balance between seniors’ mobility and road safety  in British Columbia, and ensuring that seniors can continue to be independent.  As an aging population there needs to be an increasing emphasis on the use of public transit, taxis and accessible services such as HandyDART and ride shares.
The magazine puts it bluntly: “If you’re 80 and over and facing this retesting every two years, how can you prepare? … do a walkaround on your car and honestly address any dings, scrapes and dents you don’t recall getting. Consider this quote from the American Automobile Association in the U.S.: ”Seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7 to 10 years.”


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While the rush to get autonomous vehicles onto the road and testing has meant that many jurisdictions have relaxed their requirements, The New York Times has reported that there has been challenges with Uber’s robotic vehicle project for months before the killing of a pedestrian in Tempe Arizona. It appears that the autonomous vehicles (AV) were having challenges driving through construction zones and next to big scale vehicles, with Uber drivers intervening frequently. And now the numbers are starting to come out~Waymo says that their self-driving cars go an average of 5,600 miles before drivers needed to steer out of trouble, while “Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per “intervention” in Arizona, according to 100 pages of company documents obtained by The New York Times and two people familiar with the company’s operations in the Phoenix area but not permitted to speak publicly about it.”
In November there were unfortunate remarks of Dara Khorowshahi, Uber’s chief executive who made a case for complete separation of this AV technology from other active transportation road users stating  “With autonomy, the edge cases kill you, so you’ve got to build out for all the edge cases.Which makes it a very, very difficult problem.” Tricky road situations include cyclists and pedestrians, “edge cases” that are hard to predict. Mr. Khorowshahi visited Phoenix to ride in an Uber car without “human intervention” to demonstrate that the cars could handle the edge cases.
The state of Arizona had previously  taken a hands-off attitude to AV’s and did not require any disclosure on the cars’ performance. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Arizona Governor has now halted all Uber tests in the state calling the killing of the pedestrian “an unquestionable failure”. This was not helped along by the auto-parts maker which supplied the Volvo SUV’s radar and camera stating that Uber had “disabled the standard collision-avoidance technology in the vehicle.”
As an automotive analyst for Garner observed “The collection of bad news around Uber creates a reputation in people’s minds. Every other company would get a black eye, too, but they might be forgiven. For Uber, it’s going to be hard to shake.”


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From Vox, by way of Doug Clarke:

(There is) a growing concern among urbanists that AVs will, by making personal-vehicle travel so much more convenient, induce more of it. They worry that AVs will increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT), further clogging America’s already congested city streets. … There are reasons to believe that any private autonomous vehicle industry will not just increase VMT, but will pursue more VMT aggressively.

… a new company called Vugo… has contracts with about 3,500 Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City to install video screens in their vehicles. The screens will display video advertising and, at least initially, cannot be turned off or completely muted. … The money the drivers receive from Uber and Lyft, from direct fees charged to passengers, is barely getting them by. They need supplemental income. Thus, advertising.

If shared fleets of autonomous vehicles come to be funded primarily by advertising, we will end up with an auto industry even more committed to auto supremacy than the current one — at best a reluctant partner in any effort to make cities denser and more livable, at worst a committed foe. …

Transportation is going to become more like an app, and we know how most apps are funded

One thing transportation experts have come to agree on is that transportation is evolving into more of a service than a commodity. Rather than buying cars, consumers will buy miles.

Three trends are converging in transportation: electrification, autonomy, and sharing. Anyone who claims to know exactly how that will play out, the timing of those changes, is probably selling something. But the logic of all three trends leans toward transportation as a service (TaaS). …

Barring the unlikely event that cities take ownership of these fleets and begin offering transportation as a public service (TaaPS?) funded by taxes, private industry is going run this process. Competition will be relentless, and with it the drive to reduce subscription or per-mile prices charged to customers. …
Eventually, someone will think to offer upfront charges of $0. Transportation as a free service (TaaFS)! …
So we have to at least consider the possibility that the future of transportation could be dominated by large fleets of shared, electric, autonomous vehicles funded by revenue from advertising — that our smart vehicles could become our next smartphones, tools to deliver our attention to advertisers. …

The only way to spend time with a car is to drive somewhere in it. Insofar as they get revenue from advertising, owners of shared vehicle fleets will want more people to go more places in cars. Their revenue will rise with VMT, so they will strive to maximize VMT.

Hitching ad revenue to VMT would put the industry squarely in opposition to other, non-car modes of transit and make it an enemy of good urban planning. It would strengthen short-term gratification and weaken long-term foresight — and foresight is already difficult enough to come by in transportation planning.

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From smartcitiesdive – some things to think about when designing or adapting cities for autonomous vehicles:

  • Preparations and improvements could start with something as simple as fixing potholes and ensuring lane markings on city streets are visible and consistent.
  • Should (AVs) be in dedicated lanes, at least during a likely transition period when they will need to share space with human-operated vehicles?
  • Dedicating lanes to AVs could raise questions about fairness, as AVs would initially only be used by a select few people.
  • It could be difficult given the constraints already on cities’ right-of-way and a lack of space to further widen their streets.
  • Cities also need to consider upgrades to their intersections, so that connected AVs can communicate with traffic signals to ensure a smooth ride.
  • If the growth in AV use means less need for parking, cities may need to decide what to do with excess surface parking lots and parking garages.
  • Companies are already exploring how to change parking lots and garages, especially if those AVs also run on electricity and need to be charged. … With humans not required to plug the AV in to charge it, the car could take itself to recharge at any location that has the infrastructure.


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In the “you just can’t make this stuff up” department, Bike Biz notes that Manuel Marsilio, general manager of the Confederation for the European Bicycle Industry has spoken out about the need for cyclists to “identify” themselves for autonomous vehicles. With the salvo that lives will be saved with “cycle to vehicle” sensors,  Marsilio made his comments at the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland. “It is the goal of the “connected car” industry to make cyclists wear sensors or beacons so they can be detected more easily. Currently, “erratic” cyclists are hard to detect by autonomous vehicles. And pedestrians, too, are often not spotted by a plethora of detection devices on the most tricked-out “driverless cars.”
Of course the example of the lady killed by a self-driving Uber car in Arizona was also trotted out as an example of why pedestrians could benefit from wearing a “vehicle tracker”. While there have been previous iterations of bicycle to vehicle communication systems, “B2V is a new addition to the Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything technology. C-V2X connects equipped vehicles to a larger communications system allowing them to communicate with other vehicles, pedestrian devices, cyclists and roadside infrastructure, such as traffic signs and construction zones.”
It has been pointed out that if cyclists need to have beacons and pedestrians need trackers that “smart” cars are not yet smart. While cycling is growing for health and to get around congestion, Mr. Marsilio stated that the main concern was cycling safety, and the need for communication with other road users, and a good legislative environment was needed for users to adopt tracker technology. Mr. Marsilio observed “Bicycles of the near future will have sensors that will allow cyclists to be detected by car drivers. It’s not a [case] of putting a chip in bodies or to force everybody to have a smart watch, the main idea is to have bicycles equipped with the necessary equipment in order to be able to be connected with all vehicles.”
As expected, there has been plenty of reaction to this story and the motordom based solution to have beacons on all road users. And once again, it shows how the embracing of a new technology can warp the understanding that active transportation users and pedestrians need to be embraced and embedded into a city’s living fabric. Should cyclists and pedestrians be bowing to the new needs of autonomous motordom? Not so much.


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