AV Benefits to Cities: More Than Just Safety

Let’s not devalue the potential benefits to safety offered by autonomous vehicles. In an era where distracted driving is on the rise, so too are crash fatalities, which have spiked over the past two years after a decade or more of steadily declining. AVs have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives per year. That’s extremely important, but it also tends to be the main positive thing we hear about AVs.

We know that urban centers will be the first hosts to autonomous vehicles, and we’ve written a bit about the hurdles planners face in preparing their cities for the technology — and a bit about the improved land use that could result from careful preparation.

But what are some of the other benefits to cities that are less-reported? For answers to that, we turn to a recent Bloomberg Insights report, “Taming The Autonomous Vehicle: A Primer for Cities”, which tells us “the low-cost mobility of AVs could be an important tool for reorganizing and reinventing human services in the future.”

And when we look closely at the data, we can see that this is true across a variety of human services that we wouldn’t typically associate with autonomous vehicles.

Take children and schools, for example. There is a recurring theme in cities around budget shortfalls for educational programs, which, it could be argued, are essential for the nation to grow and stay competitive. According to Bloomberg, 25 million students are transported by a school bus twice a day. It seems like a lot, and it is — and it comes at a cost. In fact, the annual cost for bus transportation per student is close to $1,000 a year! While Bloomberg acknowledges that parental acceptance of automated buses taking their kids to school is an open question, it does underscore the fact that education dollars would be freed up in large numbers by such a transition. In most cities, bus service to and from school is provided free of charge. Imagine what an extra $1,000 per student could do to offer competitive teacher salaries and host innovative educational programs.

There’s more than just the cost-saving element here. As Bloomberg puts it, “AVs could support the restructuring of how education is delivered. Policy reforms that seek to increase choice and specialization in local school systems will increase school-related travel,” which obviously will be a much easier job to handle with an automated bus system. The study also notes that magnet schools, which draw from a much larger area than neighborhood schools, face issues getting their students to school efficiently, especially since they have “lower rates of walking, bicycling, and commuting by car and higher ra s of busing.” Many students attend magnet schools that would amount to a 30-minute commute by car, or more. Rather than being tethered to the end of a bus line that begins dropping off students near the school and ends up in the suburbs where the last students are dropped off hours later, it would be reasonable to have smaller buses or vans for those students, thus allowing more family and homework time for them.

Then there’s health care. Bloomberg cites a recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), which says “an estimated 11 million medical appointments are missed annually in the United States due to insufficient transportation. If AVs could fill this gap, an estimated $19 billion could be saved annually, mostly from entitlement programs.”

It’s obviously about more than just the money here, too – though saving entitlement dollars from going to waste would be a great thing for any city. Bloomberg lays out a chart of the type of appointments that are missed, and here we see the human element: half a million diabetes-related doctor’s appointments per year. Close to two million end-stage renal cancer appointments per year. One and a half million missed congestive heart failure-related appointments per year. And, stunningly, two and a half million missed mental health-related appointments per year. So the money wasted is really nothing compared to the degree of suffering that is caused to millions of people who lack the ability to secure transportation to these appointments.

Bloomberg suggests some ways that medical services could be restructured in the AV era: “unattended medical shuttles are unlikely, as many passengers will still require assistance boarding and de-boarding the vehicle, but the driver might be replaced by a more skilled medical technician who could perform triage and preventative care. As AI-enabled diagnostics, telemedicine, and other innovations improve, many patients could be treated on-board and discharged back at their home. If significant amounts of care could be decentralized in this way, hospitals could be smaller and/or more specialized.”

Hospitals are clogged in many urban centers, so the possibility that mobile, autonomous medical vehicles could actually be the point of care for non-emergency medical issues would be a total game-changer for public health in cities.

Finally, there’s the part of the day that everyone loves to hate: the commute. People are commuting longer distances than ever to work as urban sprawl increases. But with autonomous vehicles, where a person would be able to do some of their work in their car while getting to work much more quickly than they do today, the commute could actually become part of the workday.

And the radius of what could be considered a reasonable commute would improve, too. It’s estimated that the amount of time someone spends on a 30-mile commute to Chicago today would be equivalent to an 84-mile commute from the state of Wisconsin in an autonomous vehicle. Not only will that make workers more efficient, it will expand the job market for everyone.

These are just a few of the benefits that AVs promise to cities and their residents. For more, we recommend you check out the Bloomberg Insight report. And we hope planners are listening: while, as we’ve reported, the amount of work on the horizon for them is significant, the benefits could be truly transformative for the citizens they serve. And that’s what all the talk about AV benefits should focus on. Not only are they expected to be exponentially safer, they also will touch every aspect of city services, freeing up money in budgets and improving the quality of a city top to bottom.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

Now More Than Ever, Auto Safety Must Be Addressed

Two years ago, for the first time in a decade, there were more traffic fatalities than there had been the previous year. Automobile-related deaths had been on a steady decline for a decade prior to that spike.

Now we know that wasn’t just a blip on the radar — it was the beginning of a new trend.

This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its tally of deadly vehicle crashes in the USA in 2016. The total was 37,461 lives lost — a 5.6% increase from 2015. In total, the spike that started in 2015 represents a 14.4% surge in traffic deaths. In that same time period, pedestrian deaths have shot up an astonishing 21.9%. This all on the heels of two full decades of declining highway fatality statistics.

All this despite what NHTSA acknowledges as an era where “vehicle safety technology is better than ever,” given the adoption of new safety features and safety-related ADAS systems like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping warnings.

It’s not the technology’s fault, however. As always, the fatalities can be chalked up to some form of human error. Speeding, failure to wear seat belts, drunk driving, and distraction — in the form of cell phones, as well as other factors — were all among the forms of human error that ended up costing lives. What’s the worst culprit? Regulators say they don’t really know, that there’s no real explanation for why the death toll is increasing.

Bloomberg has just printed an excellent piece positing one possible answer. The article, “Smartphones are Killing Americans, but Nobody’s Counting”, presents an array of data that suggest NHTSA has missed some key trends about smartphones that correlate very closely with the rising fatality numbers — from 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned a smartphone went from 75% to 81%, all while the way Americans were using their phones was changing. We’ve gone from using our phones to talk, which at least allows us to keep our eyes on the road, to texting, checking and updating social media, and other activities that rely on a user actually looking at their phone.

The data presented by Bloomberg is pretty compelling, and they take NHTSA to task for not linking the possibility of mobile phone use to fatalities, only including the fewer than 500 crashes where the phone use was documented. The argument is hard to deny: by NHTSA’s own reporting, drunk driving hasn’t increased nearly enough to explain the spike in fatalities, nor has speeding. The article also includes the findings of a startup called Zendrive Inc., which analyzes smartphone data for the purpose of assessing safety risks for insurance companies. According to Bloomberg, “in a study of 3 million people, it found drivers using their mobile phone during 88 percent of trips. The true number is probably even higher because Zendrive didn’t capture instances were mounted in a fixed position.”

Zendrive’s CEO said to Bloomberg: “It’s definitely frightening. Pretty much everybody is using their phone while driving.”

Frightening indeed.

There is something to be said, of course, for trying to educate drivers via public service announcements and other related forms of outreach to try to curb this rise in distracted driving. But it’s hard to imagine how regulators would be able to keep pace. Phones are becoming more and more powerful, more addictive, more — well, distracting. And especially since a driver who caused an accident while on their phone would have to openly admit to using it to an officer, it seems like a tricky thing to police — and as NHTSA’s statistics seem to suggest, tricky to document as well.

There’s only one real answer to this problem. This trend of increased traffic fatalities is precisely why we need to continue the movement toward autonomous vehicles. We are only on the cusp of what these systems will be able to do. Right now, all safety ADAS features still rely on the driver being fully alert and paying attention. In other words, these systems can help, but they aren’t going to save someone who can’t or won’t focus on the road while they’re driving.

We have heard the numbers plenty of times now, estimates that autonomous vehicles could cut traffic fatalities by 90% or more. But, for many of us, this potential benefit outweighs many of the hypothetical scenarios and predictions that some groups are making: that AVs will increase urban sprawl as more people become comfortable living in suburbs, or that there will be a rough patch where emissions rise a bit because of additional cars on the road (as self-driving taxis come into the economy before the traditional automobile has been phased out). There are arguments against these positions (and as we’ll report soon, much of these externalities can be avoided by a smart approach to urban planning), but even assuming all of those things occur: it’s still worth it if we can save tens of thousands of lives per year.

The Bloomberg piece features the story of Jennifer Smith, whose mother was killed on her way to pick up cat food when a 20-year-old college student, distracted by his mobile phone, ran a red light and broadsided her vehicle. These fatalities aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet. Not only was Smith’s mother killed for senseless and even trivial reasons, other lives were changed forever. Smith’s career was disrupted by the grief of the incident, and the 20-year-old college student will have a massive weight on his conscience for the rest of his life. And that’s just a few of many reverberations from one fatality out of tens of thousands.

The US Congress has made good steps forward lately — which we’ve reported — toward making autonomous vehicle testing easy to do while ensuring safety. But it will take more than just good intentions. We need to use all the resources available, including our USDOT-designated proving grounds, to do everything we can to speed the development of this life-saving technology.

Now more than ever, we need to take action to make mass traffic fatalities a thing of the past. And we can do it by working together, sharing information, learning, and paying attention. We’re ready to do our part — are you?

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

IEEE Madison AVs

What will our life be like with autonomous vehicles? Will it be the anticipated utopia or will there are new concerns that have to be considered? How will people regard this disrupting technology as it evolves? Will it be implemented with AI Neural Networks, or traditional Coding practices?

Date: Thursday, October 19th
When: 2:30 Vehicles, 3:30 Pizza, 4:00 Presentation
Where: 1800 Engineering Hall
Who: Bob Neff, Technologist

Several high-end automated vehicles will be on display outside of Engineering Hall. Come see these vehicles with advanced autonomous technology starting at 2:30 PM on Thursday!

Click here for the flyer (pdf)

AV Safety Evaluation Report Requirements in AV START Act

The AV START Act, which unanimously moved out of committee and is now headed for a vote in the Senate (a companion version has already passed the US House), has laid out in detail what OEMs must certify in terms of safety for vehicles before introducing them into interstate commerce for testing purposes).

This update is intended to summarize exactly what aspects of vehicles OEMs must certify for safety if and when the act passes (as all indications say it will).

Each report will have to describe in detail how the manufacturer is “addressing, through a documented assessment, testing and validation for each of the subject areas” listed below.

System Safety
*Assurance that hardware and software function as intended
*Means by which “unreasonable risks to safety” would be mitigated in the event of a malfunction
*The vehicle’s sense of “objects, motorcyclists, bicyclists, pedestrians and animals in or crossing the path of travel” via the AV system.

Data Recording – the collection by the AV of information and incident and crash data must:
*Record the occurrence of malfunctions, disengagements, degradations, or failures
*Aid in the analysis of the cause of any of the above issues
*Enable efforts to “work with other entities to address data recording and sharing”
*Comply with collection and sharing requirements laid out in the FAST Act (Public Law 114-94).

*“The minimization of cybersecurity risks” must be outlined in the report, as must include, to the DOT, “exchange of information about any vulnerabilities discovered from field incidents, internal testing, or external security research.”

Human-machine Interface – report must describe:
*The methods of informing human driver/operator regarding the AV system’s functioning, and warning when AV systems are suboptimal
*For Level 3 vehicles, methods to address driver reengagement when AV systems fail
*The use of human-machine interface by people with disabilities – law suggests visual, auditory, or haptic displays, “or other methods.”

*Report must outline “practicable protection for all occupants” given any seating configuration possible in the vehicle.

*Report must detail the capabilities and limitations of the AV system.

Post-Crash Behavior
*Report must describe how the vehicle will behave if sensors or critical systems are damaged in a crash.

Accounting for Applicable Laws
*Report must describe how the AVs will account for all applicable traffic laws and rules of the road, “based on operational design domain”

Automation Detection – report must describe:

*The expected operational design domain in which the AV is designed to operate, including any roadway and infrastructure assets required for its operation, “such as roadside equipment, pavement markings, signage, and traffic signals,” and how the vehicle will respond “if that operational design domain unexpectedly changes.”
*The AV’s expected object and event detection and response capabilities, including behavioral competencies and crash avoidance capability.
*The ability of the AV system to “transition to a minimal risk condition” when malfunctions happen.
*The performance of the vehicle through all testing developed and/or implemented by the manufacturer, including simulation, test-track and on-road testing.

NOTE: This is still not yet law, but indications are that the divisive amendments that were removed from the bill will be taken up separately and that the US House will accept the Senate bill in committee. However, any updates and revisions will be reported, if necessary.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

AV START Act Unanimously Clears US Senate Commerce Committee

After an early dispute over trucking, the counterpart to the bill that passed in the US House last month —- the AV START Act — has moved out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

The bill, which will broadly expand testing of AVs by permitting the federal government to allow federal safety standards exemptions to manufacturers based on production volume, has earned headlines based on that fact alone. But the bill was heavily amended during its time before the Commerce Committee, and we thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the amendments that were up for debate, as well as less-reported elements of the act.

Teamsters Win This Round, But Battle Isn’t Over

The Teamsters have been vocal about their opposition to this legislation having any application to trucking, and the ensuing debate was the biggest point of disagreement that this bill faced. Following a protracted battle between committee chairman Sen. Thune and an author of the bill, Sen. Peters, the legislation being passed now does not apply at all to trucks. There was an attempt by Sen. Inhofe to tack on an amendment during the committee vote to have it apply to trucking, which he withdrew due to a lack of majority support. However, Sen. Inhofe has declared that he will introduce a standalone bill to apply the new pro-testing rules to trucking. Lobbyists that have been in favor of including trucks in the AV Start Act have expressed concern that a standalone bill would cause a problem by putting the concern over employment and automation that ultimately resulted in striking trucks from this bill in an even brighter spotlight.

During the executive session, Sen. Inhofe strongly stressed that 87% of truck crashes are a result of human error, and that a majority of deadly highway crashes involve large trucks. “Testing trucks differently, when it comes to innovation, would be a major impediment,” he said. He noted that the American Trucking Association, along with most major players in the AV world (specifically mentioning Tesla, Uber, and Google) were all in favor of having the act apply to trucks.

Sen. Young spoke up and addressed the elephant in the room: that “this is about perceived job losses on account of automation. We’ve heard from experts that this can elevate the status of transportation jobs, we should own it and lean into that.”

There was agreement between Sens. Inhofe, Young and Thune that they would continue to press the issue moving forward. However, it’s impossible to say at his point whether or not such a push would be successful. Still, the issue isn’t settled and there is sure to be more debate.

Corridors & Infrastructure Must Be Studied

Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s amendment to the act, which was unanimously accepted, includes a provision that the Secretary of USDOT must initiate a study of AVs on transportation infrastructure as well as mobility, the environment, and fuel consumption, includes impacts on the interstate system, urban and rural areas, and corridors with heavy traffic congestion. The DOT secretary is charged with determining the need for any executive policy or legislative changes, specifically on impacts of, and the interaction between, AVs & infrastructure, including signage and pavement markings, traffic lights, highway capacity and design.

3M Gets a Big Shoutout On Infrastructure

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who worked with Duckworth on the above amendment, is very interested in the issue of how AVs will interact with intelligent infrastructure. (This was a sentiment expressed by many others during the proceedings; many senators said that safety was a legitimate concern because of the lack of V2I infrastructure deployed across the country). She referenced 3M’s work on highway infrastructure. Understandable, since they’re based in Minnesota. Chairman Thune echoed the fact that 3M has been very involved and interested and “has a real desire to work with us”. Other senators nodded.

Safety Advocates Force Smaller Exemption Numbers

The most impactful of Sen. Blumenthal’s many amendments (some of which were accepted) reflected a lobbying campaign by groups that were concerned about AV testing on public roads, and provisions that would allow phased-in sales of AVs. So those numbers have been cut. For the 12 months after the bill’s passage, safety-standard waivers for vehicles allowed for sale or interstate commerce has been cut from 50,000 to 15,000. For the year after that, the cut is from 75,000 to 40,000, and the year after that, 100,000 to 80,000, which will remain the cap for five years at that point.

HAV Data Access Advisory Committee To Be Created

Sen. Inhofe’s amendment, the “HAV Data Access Advisory Committee Act”, restricts any agency of federal government to promulgate any rules regarding ownership, control, or access to any data stored or generated by AVs until a newly-created HAV Data Access Advisory Committee is able to make a report.

The committee, which must be formed no later than 180 days after the bill becomes law, will be a forum for stakeholders to discuss and make recommendations to Congress regarding AV-generated data ownership, control and access. Within two years they’ll make recommendations (those that are supported by 2/3 of voting members) and are specifically charged with considering “motor vehicle safety, intellectual property protections, compliance with vehicles under the motor vehicle safety act, consumer privacy, cybersecurity, confidential business information related to AV systems, public safety and transportation planning.”

Sen. Markey saw a similar amendment be adopted, which calls for the creation of a Motor Vehicle Privacy Database via NHTSA, where individuals can publicly access and easily search for any personally identifiable information on themselves gathered by AVs, and to learn the period the information will be retained and when and how it would be destroyed.

Drivers Still Liable

The AV START act states that “compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard does not exempt a person from liability in common law.” So, at least for now, the drivers of safety-standard-exempted AVs could be held legally liable for any accidents that occur during testing until an updated law is passed.

SAE Standards Are Officially “the” Standards

Get used to talking about AVs in numeral terms: the section of the bill requiring automakers to report on their safety standards to NHTSA added the language “including its SAE level”, so it’s now a sure bet that we’ll be talking Level 3, Level 4, Level 5 from here on out.

US-Based Production and Solutions Preferred

Sen. Udall’s amendment requires the DOT secretary to initiate a study on encouraging manufacturing within the US of automated driving equipment, intelligent transportation solutions, and other equipment, including hardware and processors. The study is meant to focus on how grant money and other funding sources could incentivize US companies to produce enough to be world leaders on everything AV-related.

These are just some of the highlights. The bill, which is seen as a shoo-in to pass the Senate, will still need to be reconciled between the House and Senate before it reaches the President’s desk, so while these amendments likely represent the act taking shape in preparation for reconciliation and enactment, we will continue to monitor the progress of the AV START Act and report any significant changes.

Sources used for this update: the content of a live-streamed executive session, the text of the AV START Act, and the text of amendments, all of which were provided by the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s website.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.