As California goes, so go driverless vehicles

Self-driving carsSelf-driving cars are the future. But exactly what that future will look like is still to be determined.

What is more certain is that California will play an outsize role in shaping our transportation future. Our state is at the epicenter of automated driving technology development. It is also a pioneer in tackling climate change at the gas pump, through our Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the Zero-Emission Vehicle program. California is ideally positioned to show the world how a driverless transportation future could help clean the air and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Without this kind of leadership, driverless vehicles could end up doing a lot of environmental damage.

The 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative at the Institute of Transportation Studies of the University of California Davis recently released a policy brief on Keeping Vehicle Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Check in a Driverless Vehicle World. It highlights the actions policymakers can take to ensure the automated vehicle revolution goes easy on the Earth. 

The 3 Revolutions policy brief focuses on two measures of potential trouble: vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If everyone simply switches from traditional cars to driverless vehicles, both VMT and GHG can be expected to rise. That’s because driverless cars are expected to make travel cheaper and dramatically more convenient: among other predicted impacts of AVs, people will no longer feel stuck behind the wheel, but will be able to spend travel time working, resting, or entertaining themselves with screens or hobbies instead. They might even decide to live further away from their jobs, where land is cheap and housing units bigger, as commuting in traffic would not be perceived a strong deterrent.

A suite of strategies can help keep greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled in check, even as driverless vehicles take over the road. Among others, these include:

  • Deploying driverless cars as shared-use vehicles rather than privately-owned (and used) transportation options. Sharing vehicles through transportation companies or public agencies would remove the sunk costs of auto ownership and transfer the transportation cost to per-mile share of expenses. This would mitigate the increase in VMT. Sharing cars would also reduce the time cars sit idling in a driveway (or garage) and free up parking space for infill development.
  • Ensuring widespread carpooling.If passengers are willing to share a ride to the same destination, this would decrease total VMT while providing mobility options to individuals. But travelers often don’t want to share. And the land use of many cities and regions is simply not conducive to carpooling, as origins and destinations are too far from each other. Pricing tools should be used to encourage shared use of vehicles rather than “riding alone”.
  • Coordinating AV shared vehicleswith transit could cut travel costs significantly and reduce VMT and GHG emissions through providing the first/last mile access to high-quality public transportation. But this isn’t likely to happen without incentives that encourage it.
  • Deploying driverless vehicles as zero-emission vehicles. Automated vehicles powered by electricity or other zero-tailpipe-emission sources of energy would help curb GHG emissions (assuming electricity is not produced burning coal).
  • Introducing pricing. Charging travelers to use roads and curb space could be used strategically to boost carpooling and transit use, shift trips to less-congested times of the day, discourage travel by empty driverless vehicles, and accomplish other transportation goals.
  • Increasing high-quality and high-density transit. On main corridors in high-density areas, mass transit will remain the most efficient way to move people. Driverless cars could improve first- and last-mile connections to subways, buses and other transit options, expanding ridership (see the previous bullet on the coordination of shared AVs with transit).
  • Ensuring driverless vehicles are not larger or more energy consumptive. Automation might lead to big changes in vehicle design, especially if a front-facing driver is not required anymore. The shape and design of vehicles could change dramatically. This could lead to giant vehicles housing exercise equipment, kitchens, dining rooms, offices or other facilities, which could increase energy use and emissions and slow traffic.
  • Programming vehicles to improve livability, safety and comfort on surface streets. The National Association of City Transportation Officials advocates a 25 MPH speed limit on urban streets for driverless cars, in order to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. Improving the safety of roadways will encourage more bike and pedestrian travel, and ensure that driverless cars complement, and do not substitute, active transportation.

As we cruise towards a future in which traveling by car doesn’t require constantly paying attention to the road, we must continually improve our understanding of what driverless cars mean for our society and how policy decisions can steer automated transportation in the right direction.

Driverless transportation could usher in an era of better, safer, more affordable mobility while keeping air quality and climate change in check. But we can’t expect all those good things to happen by accident. It will take California’s leadership to set an example of decisive and sustainable action.

irector of the Future Mobility Initiative at the Institute of Transportation Studies of the University of California, Davis.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Uber pulls self-driving cars from California roads

As reported by the Chicago Tribune:

Uber pulled its self-driving cars from California roads after state regulators moved to revoke their registrations, officials said.

The move comes after a week of talks between the ride-hailing company and state regulators failed.

Hours after Uber launched the service in its hometown of San Francisco last Wednesday, the Department of Motor Vehicles threatened legal action if the company did not stop. The cars need the same special permit as the 20 other companies testing self-driving technology in California, regulators argued.

Uber maintains it does not need a permit because the cars are not sophisticated enough to continuously drive themselves, although the company promotes them as “self-driving.”

The DMV said the registrations …

Click here to read the full story

Thoughtless Bureaucrats and Driverless Cars

google car2California’s Legislature set out in 2012 “to encourage the current and future development, testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on the public roads of the state” — but now, the state is poised effectively to ban such cars from the roads and highways. The Department of Motor Vehicles held a public workshop in Sacramento in late January and another in Los Angeles in early February to discuss draft regulations for autonomous vehicles. Though the rules won’t be finalized before the end of the year, the news so far isn’t good — for the cars. Under the cover of “consumer protection,” the DMV proposes to limit the rollout of autonomous technology by, among other things, barring its commercial use, precluding truly autonomous operation, and prohibiting private sale and ownership of self-driving cars.

The DMV is best known for ensuring that 16-year-olds are minimally competent behind the wheel of traditional motor vehicles; it has no particular expertise in evaluating the appropriateness of vehicle-safety requirements. But that hasn’t stopped the department from imposing an excess of caution on the approval of autonomous-vehicle technology. The idea of cars or trucks operating without steering wheels or human drivers is exciting to entrepreneurs and commuters. Google’s autonomous car would have no steering wheel, or even pedals. A delivery service such as Google Express would likely roll out without drivers. Uber is researching how to replace drivers as well. Shipping and logistics companies also envision a future when goods move from harbors to warehouses in autonomous trucks. More than a dozen disabled activists appeared at the hearing in Los Angeles to urge the DMV to allow purely autonomous vehicles, saying they would be a boon for people, such as the blind, who are incapable of driving right now. But the idea is terrifying to bureaucrats and regulators. The DMV’s smothering — and costly — approach will likely become state policy, squelching such innovations.

Keeping driverless cars off the streets is one thing; why ban their sale entirely? DMV chief information officer Bernard Soriano said last month that because the proposed rules would place a three-year limit on the use of approved vehicles, buyers likely wouldn’t receive much benefit over such a short period of ownership. Furthermore, the DMV believes that by prohibiting sales, the rules would protect early adopters of the technology from being stuck with vehicles that are later deemed unsafe by the department. Finally, the DMV maintains that leased vehicles, which remain under the ownership of the vehicle manufacturer, will be easier to collect data from.

The first of the rationales is the most compelling, but only compared with the others. With only three years before retirement, a purchased vehicle’s value — much of it traditionally recouped in its resale — would be destroyed by these regulations. The rule would shift a greater financial burden onto manufacturers and all but guarantee that the only people able to afford early vehicles, even by leasing them, will be wealthy. If anything, the three-year sunset requirement is itself a constructive ban on ownership, which makes the DMV’s second rationale irrelevant. If a small, wealthy segment of the population is aware of the state’s strictures and doesn’t mind temporarily possessing a vehicle that’s doomed by law, it can certainly afford the risk. The state’s supposed desire to protect these people from loss seems at once unnecessary and disingenuous.

The DMV’s third and final rationale — compliance with reporting requirements—is even more poorly conceived. As with every vehicle sold today, the manufacturer, for better or worse, controls the technology used and the data it produces. When you buy or lease a car, you sign a contract that says so explicitly. So the DMV would have access to any safety data it likes, regardless of whether the “owner” is the manufacturer or the end user.

Without question, prohibiting private sale and ownership of self-driving cars and trucks would destroy value and raise costs. Google has already threatened to take its autonomous vehicle business elsewhere. Given that outcome, the DMV’s justifications simply don’t hold up. So why would the DMV push prohibition with such gusto? Why would the state pursue policies to discourage the adoption of vehicles that, by virtually all accounts, would be orders of magnitude safer than traditionally operated vehicles? And, how does a department charged with enacting the will of the legislature land so far afield of the legislature’s stated goal of creating a legal framework that promotes autonomous vehicles? Very simply, lawmakers deferred too much authority to a bureaucracy, and California’s motorists will pay the price.