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Autonomous Vehicles Might Be Coming Your Way Soon But The Transition's Sure To Be Bumpy

Photo of McGuire.
Judy Fahys / KUER
Greg McGuire, talking to reporters, leads the Mcity research partnership at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His background is in car-sharing, a big component of the transportation systems of the future.

If your car warns when you drift into another lane or it adjusts the cruise control automatically, you’re already using self-driving vehicle technology.

But, in the not-too-distant future, cars and trucks could be fully autonomous, taking the steering wheel out of our hands — and possibly making roads safer. Transportation futurists predict that high-tech vehicles will prevent more than 30,000 deaths on the nation’s roads each year. They’ll also drive us to faraway vacation spots while we sleep.

At least that’s the vision of the people tackling the technological challenges of autonomous vehicles. The experts continue to debate whether this transportation revolution will happen five, 10 or 20 years from now. No one can say for sure when all the problems will be solved — the technological challenges and human ones.

It's not going to be like the Jetsons. We're not gonna have flying cars that turn themselves into a briefcase when they're done. But this really will be revolutionary. This is a game changer. — Rep. Robert Spendlove

To help clear legal obstacles here in Utah, State Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, has proposed legislation for self-driving cars.

But how soon humans embrace this disruptive technology is still an open question.

“We've got to change that mindset of ‘I'm a great driver; I don't need these kinds of technologies,’” said Spendlove, who presented his bill at the Legislature on Friday.

“It’s not going to be like the Jetsons,” he said. “We’re not gonna have flying cars that turn themselves into a briefcase when they’re done. But this really will be revolutionary. This is a game changer.”

Spendlove has been following research on autonomous vehicles since he had a ride in one at Utah State University a couple of years ago. This sort of research is underway at proving grounds that dot the country.

‘An incredibly complicated task’

Photo of test site.
Credit Judy Fahys / KUER
MCity provides test tracks for autonomous vehicles. The idea is to simulate real life situations, like people in traffic, tunnels and challenging weather.

In Michigan, the historical home of American motor works, is Mcity, the University of Michigan’s test site in Ann Arbor. Sitting on 32 acres, it’s an outdoor laboratory that includes five miles of roadway intended to mimic the transportation experience in a typical city or suburb. Even on a bluebird day, it’s unmistakably a fake city with movie-set storefronts and an impressive number of traffic signals and road signs.

“It represents the communities that we live in,” said Greg McGuire, Mcity’s lab director and a serial technology disruptor who dreamed up the worldwide car-sharing service, Zipcar.

“If you want to do safe and repeatable testing of your system,” he said, “you can bring your mobility system in here to work on it prior to introducing it into the places where we all live.”

Mcity’s traffic lights, street signs and intersections all communicate with the vehicles tested there. The fake sidewalk café, other vehicles and pedestrians help simulate situations that autonomous vehicles might encounter out in the real world.

They’re “teaching” the test vehicles, helping them learn to navigate snow and ice and to avoid pedestrians stepping from a sidewalk into traffic. But how to handle tumbleweeds or twisty canyon roads are yet-to-be-mastered skills, McGuire said.

Driving is an incredibly complicated task. Humans are surprisingly good at it. — M City Lab Director Greg McGuire

Researchers here from the university, industry and government have been gathering feedback about a driverless shuttle that serves limited routes on campus. They’re hearing from anyone who “interacts” with the vehicle whether they encounter it on its route or actually use it.

In Utah, USU has deployed autonomous vehicles as part of another research project on wireless vehicle charging. And the Utah Transit Authority has teamed up with the state Department of Transportation to lease a driverless bus that will be used to gauge the public’s willingness to use driverless vehicles. It arrives from France next month.

“Driving is an incredibly complicated task,” he explained. “Humans are surprisingly good at it. You can look an object in the road and you know immediately: ‘That’s a ball, and balls are typically followed by children, so I’m going to slow down.’ These things are really difficult to teach machines.”

McGuire and other champions of autonomous vehicles say safety will be the biggest benefit. They say human error accounts for 94 percent of roughly 5.4 million motor-vehicle crashes in the United States each year. They say high-tech cars will prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually.

That’s a big driver behind Spendlove’s push to pave the way for self-driving cars in Utah law.

“Often when I mention to people what I'm working on, their immediate reaction is, ‘Well, I'm never going to go on one of those’,” said Spendlove. “There is this reluctance — giving up that control, that freedom. And we've got to change that mindset of ‘I'm a great driver, I don't need these kinds of technologies’.”

Redefining ‘driver’

Spendlove’s first task is redefining what a “driver” is.

“Right now in [Utah state] code, an operator is a human, so, we have to redefine code to say that the operator can be a human or can be a machine,” the lawmaker said. “It also authorizes fully autonomous cars to operate on the roads in Utah.”

Another provision clarifies who’s liable if a driverless vehicle crashes. But, ultimately, Spendlove predicted that technology won’t be the biggest challenge for autonomous vehicles. He said it probably will be our thinking.

Spendlove contends high-tech vehicles like these will most certainly disrupt life as we know it. How will cities replace their revenue from traffic tickets that aren’t written anymore? And how will society accommodate thousands of delivery drivers who find themselves out of work? Where will hospitals find donor organs?

“There's a reason we call it disruptive innovation,” said Spendlove. “We have to acknowledge that and we have to help those that are displaced by it.

“But, on the other side,” he added, “the reason that these technologies move forward is because they really do improve our lives so immensely. I think it's going to change the nature of the way that we live our lives which is really exciting.”

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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