Although self-driving cars may still seem a bit science-fiction, autonomous technology has already been present in our automobiles for decades. The first semi-autonomous technology – cruise control – debuted in 1950, and recent research compiled by Ohio University showed that 61 percent of U.S. drivers want one of the many other semi-autonomous features now available, such as automatic emergency brakes or self-parking technology. However, the same research showed that only 20 percent of Americans currently would trust an autonomous vehicle to drive them somewhere.
Contrary to that disconnect, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) promise a wide range of lesser-known benefits, both here in Detroit and across the country. We chatted with local and national experts about just a few of the ways CAV will affect safety, congestion, and transportation accessibility for the better.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, drivers cause an overwhelming 94 percent of vehicle crashes. So what happens when you remove drivers from the equation? The jury's still out on exactly how much that number would decrease, as fully autonomous cars are still being tested. But one study found that even early-stage autonomous vehicles could save as many as 3,000 lives in a year. Semi-autonomous technology on the market today, like lane departure warning and lane keep assist systems, is already doing its part to prevent crashes as well.
"The more we can connect these vehicles together, the safer we can be," says Phil Bertolini, deputy Oakland County executive and a member of the county's Connected Vehicle Task Force. "If you look at the accidents that happen in the state of Michigan and all around the country, many of those can be avoided."
Cars will save lives by talking to each other, but also by communicating with the infrastructure around them. Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology holds especially great potential in a busy urban environment like the city of Detroit, according to Mark de la Vergne, the city's chief of mobility innovation. While autonomous cars on a highway have to interact primarily with each other while traveling in a fairly linear path, the same vehicles on a Detroit street will have to reckon with pedestrians, bicycles, public transit, traffic signals, and more.
"It's a much greater challenge, but there is an opportunity," de la Vergne says. "I think the surface has only begun to be scratched on how technology can be layered in with traditional means of making intersections and streets safer, to get to a goal where we're actually reducing fatalities and serious injuries."
Last year, the city received a $2.1 million Federal Highway Administration Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment Program grant to study safety and connectivity in four Detroit neighborhoods. De la Vergne says the city is currently looking at implementing "smarter" infrastructure that could delay traffic signal changes triggered by weather conditions, or a cyclist or pedestrian approaching an intersection, with an eye towards incorporating V2I as technology develops.
"We're going to begin to tackle a problem here, a problem there, using this grant to implement the technologies and see if they're doing what they can," he says. "Then we'll work with the private sector to improve upon those."
CAV may make our commutes not only safer, but smoother. A study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed that the insertion of just a single autonomous car into a traffic pattern helped to reduce the amount of "traffic waves," which are created when a car pumps its brakes and those behind it follow suit.
There are also major implications for the concept of swarm intelligence, which applies design principles derived from nature to the technology that drives autonomous cars. Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, worked with swarm technology in her past career as senior vice president of research and development at Nissan.
"We began to study birds in formation, schools of fish, bees in a hive," she says. "You notice that they all go very, very fast. They travel at high speed. They travel close together. But they don't run into each other. … So we began to look at what we need to put on the car to enable that same degree of sensory perception."
In addition to reducing traffic congestion, CAVs are also likely to have a major effect in reducing the amount of parked cars that monopolize space in most urban areas. If commuters are simply taking advantage of a CAV fleet that takes them where they want to go on demand, rather than driving their own cars to work, their cars no longer need occupy a city parking spot, garage, or lot.
Nico Larco, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in autonomous vehicles, says there are "tremendous" opportunities for densifying cities as a result. Larco suggests that former parking areas in cities might be used to develop more affordable housing, while the large office parks that sit on the far outskirts of cities and suburbs might move inward towards commercial and residential centers.
"Would you rather be in an office building surrounded by parking, or would you rather be in an office building where you can walk to a restaurant or a bar or a coffee shop? I'd be hard-pressed to find people who actually like parking out there," Larco says. "So all these things can change. It's a huge benefit."
The rise of CAVs may also democratize transportation in an unprecedented way. Larco points to the success of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft in lower-income communities, where those services are often cheaper, faster, and less discriminatory than traditional cabs and more convenient than a bus. He describes the services as "AVs with drivers," and says a publicly accessible CAV fleet would likely be used in the same way.
De la Vergne echoes that sentiment, noting that there's huge potential for CAVs to provide innovative new forms of public transit within the existing framework of DDOT and SMART's bus systems.
"There's the opportunity out there to understand and deliver a better way to provide mobility to parts of the city where fixed-route transportation might not be the best answer, whether that's through autonomous shuttles (or) whether that's through on-demand technology," he says.
Experts note that the many benefits of CAVs must come with some fundamental shifts in the way we think about transportation. For example, CAVs may ease congestion by driving smarter in traffic – but some researchers believe that the ease of using one will actually cause people to use them more often than they would traditional cars. Larco says that could have the effect of actually creating more traffic. The problem could be fixed by embracing microtransit options that carry even just two passengers in separate compartments of the same autonomous vehicle, but Larco says it's important to start thinking ahead to those solutions now.
"There's fantastic benefits to this stuff, absolutely," Larco says. "But it will depend a lot on how we structure things to make sure that we go in that direction."
Bertolini, too, says there are many questions to be answered in making CAVs a daily reality for metro Detroiters. But he says the county got ahead of the issue by forming its connected vehicle task force, and he expects the metro area to stay on the cutting edge of the CAV movement.
"We've made some strides," he says. "I think we've opened some eyes. … But it is about the future, not the current situation. I think the future's going to get here a lot sooner than people realize, and it's going to be an exciting time."
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Photos by David Lewinski