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Three possible futures for automated vehicles

I have the pleasure of going to many meetings – some quite interesting and others, well, not so interesting. In the past month, I’ve attended three automated or self-driving car get-togethers, which in content and in sociological or cultural differences absolutely fit the former category.

It occurs to me that these meetings represent three separate forces of change – a veritable three-headed hydra. If we are to make an automated vehicle-highway system a reality, these forces should be combined. One distinct head – or perhaps a triumvirate – would make these three camps into a powerful single entity. Going different ways, they only succeed in pulling against each other.

The first gathering was a ‘meet up’ at the Nissan Silicon Valley Research Center, where Anthony Levandowski of Google regaled a virtually cheering crowd of what I will call Silicon Valley enthusiasts. We heard a Google Vision that embraces autonomous cars by 2020.

The second meeting was invitation-only and convened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hosted by the Pennsylvania State DOT and Carnegie Melon University. It featured a logical and very linear preliminary plan by the USDOT that envisions a government role in shepherding research that might enable and would demonstrate a cooperative vehicle-road system. PennDOT was particularly interested in infrastructure planning and investment, not necessarily for an autonomous car, but for an automated, connected vehicle-highway system that, by 2040, could yield tremendous safety and productivity benefits, to include a transformation in goods movement.

The third was Richard Bishop’s 18th International Task Force of Vehicle Highway Automation in Tokyo, Japan. The figure 18 says enough: these are the vehicle-highway automation stalwarts who’ve persisted through thick and thin and are – finally – riding the pendulum back toward the mainstream. The perspective is mature (as are the folks, at least chronologically), and there is a strong dose of realism – bordering on resignation – that there are still a great many implementation challenges, and that solid and large-scale studies of technologies, reliability and social and institutional changes are needed to ascertain both the near- and long-term claims of benefits.

My question, therefore, is how does one reconcile these three meritorious points of view with their distinct and important brands of stakeholders? I posit that a seamless melding is important, and if any one of these vectors go the wrong way, then we lose magnitude and potentially diffuse. Now it is easy enough to proclaim that these three parties should meet and combine but it is more difficult to make it happen. Certainly, judicious investment in public money would be important.

Also important is the emerging tri-lateral (USDOT, European Commission, Japan) cooperation and joint workplan. But where are state DOTs? Where are university researchers? And, importantly, where are those wide-eyed entrepreneurs and developers? Finally, while some vehicle manufacturers and suppliers are in several of these venues, how exactly do they play?

Certainly universal definitions, compatible R&D thrusts, a dose of healthy competition, some government funding and standards will ‘glue’ all necessary – if not manual – inputs to craft what will be a decidedly non-manual output: ubiquitous, beneficial and desirable automated/self-driving vehicles on our roads.

 

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