Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment

Are We There Yet? An Overview of the City of San Jose/Daimler Autonomous Vehicle Community Presentation

[Disclaimer: This author is Vice President of the WNAC and helped organize the meeting described below. Further commentary on the meeting and autonomous vehicles can be found in the SmartDrivingCar podcast, hosted by Princeton’s Alain Kornhauser and journalist, Fred Fishkin.]

Are we there yet
View from a Long Road Trip

Are we there yet? This familiar refrain, often asked by children on a long family road trip, could be applied to the autonomous vehicle. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, knowing that there is a there, maybe the most important question. Will the addition of autonomy create, as folks like Robin Chase and Lauren Isaac suggest, a heaven or hell scenario or will it be something in between? While we have just left the metaphorical driveway on our autonomous journey, the August 21st, 2019 presentation from the City of San Jose/Daimler suggests that smart people are looking at autonomy to improve the quality of life for all, which is a laudable objective.

How We Got Here

What will life be like in 2040 if vehicles morph into automated, point-to-point mobility machines?  This question was pondered in this 2014 article, which sparked discussions within the Winchester Neighborhood Action Coalition (WNAC), a super neighborhood group that transcends parts of three Silicon Valley cities and comprises a mix of single-family homes, various multi-dwelling units and the largest retail and mixed-use center in Northern California. The WNAC’s mission is to use innovation to improve the quality of life in its footprint.

Dr Kornhauser at the WNAC
Dr. Alain Kornhauser Speaking to the WNAC in 2015

In 2015, Princeton and Southern Illinois University Professors Alain Kornhauser and Shannon McDonald, respectively, provided insight to the WNAC in a lively discussion. Shireen Santosham, the Chief Innovation Officer in the City of San Jose Mayor’s Office, built on their presentation in 2017 with an overview of an RFI that the City of San Jose issued for a public-private partnership for an autonomous vehicle trial in the Capital of Silicon Valley.

Vehicle automation offers the potential to transform the built environment and the WNAC has been looking at this through its Cap subcommittee. Cap refers to the idea of covering a freeway both to gain more land, as well as creating a transportation interface. Low-speed, autonomous shuttles would connect traditional suburban neighborhoods with these pockets of density on one side, while the Cap would connect to high-speed shared transportation on the existing freeway right-of-way.

All Hail the Ride Hail

Jill North
City of San Jose’s Jill North Speaking at the August 2019 WNAC Meeting

It was in this context that the City of San Jose chose the WNAC to host the initial community meeting regarding the autonomous vehicle testing that is about to commence. Jill North, the Innovation Program Manager in the City of San Jose’s Department of Transportation (DoT), provided an overview of the RFI and reported that they received 31 responses to their RFI.

Her comments echoed the goals of the WNAC and the idea of leveraging technology to improve things for the citizens of San Jose. The guiding principles of the RFI are as follows,

  • Promote safety for all users
  • Reduce the environmental impacts of total vehicle miles traveled
  • Build a balanced transportation system
  • Improve mobility for all
  • Create livable communities
  • Obtain data for transportation planning

To this last point, data from the Daimler/Bosch autonomous vehicles will be fed back to the city’s DoT to provide a better picture of traffic and road conditions. This is a two-way street, as the DoT is providing traffic signal information, transmitted via the cellular network, to the vehicles, which will augment the vehicle camera that is dedicated to reading traffic lights.

Michael Malle, Daimler’s Director of Sensor Fusion, indicated the traffic signal status could also be used to adjust vehicle speed to make green lights or slow down for a light that is about to turn red. As a reference, the City of San Jose had an earlier trial with Connected Signals that used a similar approach to deliver traffic light information to smartphones via an app (see article & video here).

Michael Malle
Daimler’s Michael Malle explaining their AV objectives

Malle provided a high-level overview of all the sensors, which include ultrasound, near and long-range radar, lidar, and multiple cameras. In his presentation, he displayed the various views of what these sensors see. And, although they see and hear a spectrum that is much greater than a human, the biggest long-term advantage is that these vehicles don’t get distracted by text messages or kids screaming, “Are we there yet,” in the back seat. With a reaction time of 1/3 compared to 1 to 2 seconds for a human, autonomous vehicles offer the promise of fewer crashes.

Daimler’s Curt Rodda, Operations Manager – Autonomous Services, looked at the higher level and indicated that the Daimler/Bosch partnership is using this trial to understand what an autonomous ride-hailing service would mean in terms of vehicle design(s). As such, to some extent, the technology is secondary to the human aspects of such a service.

Attendees of the August 2019 WNAC meeting got to see a Daimler/Bosch autonomous vehicle like the one depicted in this picture.
Meeting attendees saw a Daimler/Bosch autonomous test vehicle

Rodda indicated that their fleet will include a combination of sensor-laden vehicles and traditional vehicles. Both types of vehicles will feature two highly trained safety driver/attendants.

The trial will start in a tightly controlled fashion and will start with communities that need mobility the most, such as the visually impaired.  The trial will focus on the pooling of people which promises a reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and congestion by reducing the total number of vehicles needed for a given number of trips.

The audience was engaged and asked thought-provoking questions, including:

  • How are different companies in the autonomous vehicle space communicating their learnings? This author initially interpreted this to mean how companies were cooperating on edge cases (e.g. identifying that a child is about to chase the soccer ball his friend just kicked in the street). It became apparent that this question was more about vehicle platooning, whereby vehicle spacing could be closer and speeds would automatically adjust without human intervention.
  • Another community member asked about the insurance implications of the autonomous vehicle trial. Daimler responded that the State of California requires a $5 Million policy and this author suggested that the insurance agency may already have or are close to an insurance product for this category, based on comments from MunichRE’s Mike Scrudato (MunichRE insures, the insurers).
  • Will the vehicles evolve to electric from internal combustion engines? Yes.
  • Playing on the idea of mobility for all, one seasoned citizen volunteered his community of 300+ people as a good test candidate.

On Our Way

While Wednesday’s meeting was well-received, the 40 or so attendees represent a fraction of the population in the trial area. The challenge will be getting the word out and eliciting feedback from the larger community. Fortunately, the meeting was recorded (Facebook, log-in not required), giving people who couldn’t be there, the opportunity to see it after the fact. A follow-up survey of the attendees will be another way to elicit feedback and help steer follow-up meetings, as this was another step in a long journey to improving mobility in the place that used to be known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight.

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is Marketing Director for the Broadband Forum. The mission of this 25+-year-old non-profit “is to unlock the potential for new markets and profitable revenue growth by leveraging new technologies and standards in the home, intelligent small business, and multi-user infrastructure of the broadband network.”

He is also co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on the rural broadband ecosystem, autonomous vehicles, and electric aviation. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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