Driverless tech navigates challenging course

Driverless tech navigates challenging course
Global Telematics President John Niles envisions a gradual shift in the transportation sector from personal driving to the mass use of automated, autonomous ride-sharing vehicles. Photo:

The Washington State Transportation Commissions (WSTC) in October approved recommendations to the state legislature concerning the integration of autonomous vehicles (AV) on public roadways. However, one of the challenges for crafting statewide AV policies is uncertainty over the extent to which technology will progress and how it will affect driving in the future.

Although optimism regarding the potential for AV has waned in the last year, Global Telematics President John Niles has argued that the mood will eventually swing upward once expectations better match actual capabilities. In a presentation to the WSTC at its Dec. 17 meeting, he argued that policymakers have to separate different but similar car technology and how it will alter how people travel. Niles is the coauthor of the book “The End of Driving,” along with a paper titled “Getting past the hype.”

He said that currently cars are regarded as a problem for cities the same way horses were more than a century ago. Although AV technology could remedy that, right now the mood is one of uncertainty: “Are we going to see heaven or are we going to see hell? Are folks going to be controlled…or is it just more and more automated traffic?”

Niles differentiates what is collectively known as AV technology into various categories based on the level of driver involvement – if there is anyf at all. For all the hype certain vehicles get for their supposed autonomous abilities, he said the autopilots are “over-described. You really do need to keep your hands on the wheel. Eventually, you get to where you’re on a freeway (and) you can take your hands off the wheel for 10-20 seconds. They’re not really autonomous, because there are always going to be people in the loop; right now you want to have a licensed operator.”

The biggest technological hurdle for carmakers will be to shift vehicle operations back and forth from the driver. “How do you get somebody to intervene, and how do they intervene properly?”

Niles envisions a concept of “universal basic mobility” in which trips move from personal driving to automated ridesharing. “(We’re) not worrying about how we’re going to get a big bus into the suburbs. We’ve got to think it through in the long run how to evolve.”

Another policy question yet to be addressed by the commission or its Autonomous Vehicle Work Group is whether or not an individually-owned driverless car should be allowed to operate on public roads. Niles said he’s opposed, adding that some lessons may be found with privately owned drones. “We have anti-cruising laws. Is there really any argument at all for letting individuals deploy robots on the streets? I don’t think so, but it’s a question.”


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