“The interesting thing about this [autonomous vehicle] technology is that it has enormous potential for improving quality of life.” With that statement, Princeton Professor Alain Kornhauser set the stage for the penultimate session of the Smart Driving Car Summit, Making It Happen – Part 1. With a line-up of political leaders, this panel looked at what is necessary to cross the chasm from early adoption to the mainstream market for shared driverless vehicles.
Kornhauser points out that this technology is new and different. But the point of this panel was not to discuss the technology. An underlying assumption of this panel was that the technology will be able to match that of a human in each Operational Design Domain. Kornhauser’s concern is
“If communities don’t embrace it, cherish it, welcome it, it (shared driverless) may never happen.” And, if it does not happen, the potential societal benefits will never occur.”
The most impressive thing about the April 8th, 2021 panel, however, has nothing to do with autonomous vehicles. It was a productive and non-partisan conversation facilitated by Kornhauser. There were no “Ds” or “Rs”, only Americans exchanging ideas and lessons learned on the best way to set policy for this still-emerging market.
If You Can Make It in Trenton, You Can Make It Anywhere #
Trenton, New Jersey shares characteristics with many U.S. mid-size cities. The capital city of New Jersey and the county seat of Mercer County has no subway or light rail to serve its population of approximately 83,000. Approximately, 20,000 state workers commute to Trenton each workday from other communities into this berg of 7.6 square miles.
Reed Gusciora, the Mayor of Trenton, NJ, suggests that shared driverless is a good solution for cities that do not have rail/subway transportation infrastructure. The majority of his citizen’s trips are short ones that would fit into an operational design domain of his berg’s boundaries.
Kornhauser describes the challenge of Trenton and cities like Trenton as not one of mass aggregation that would support a train line, but one where there are many to many trips at different times. Gusciora explains that “Having a flexible mobility system that does what they (people) need is what they are looking at.”
It would give seniors and other vulnerable parts of Trenton’s population easier access to mobility. Gusciora reports that, based on its survey of seniors,
“54% would be amenable to jumping into an autonomous car.”
At the same time, a significant percentage of those surveyed were not aware of the technology, according to Gusciora.
Richard Sun, Transportation Policy Advisor, Office of the Governor of NJ, who is Vin White’s recent replacement in that role, explains that his role on the panel is to listen and learn. From a policy perspective, there has to be a belief that the technology will be ready. He says that driverless vehicles offer the potential to bridge the first/last mile. In addition to the equity arguments, safety also needs to be part of the focus.
Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (D-14 Mercer) adds that Trenton and cities like Trenton are perfect test beds for autonomous vehicle testing. He encourages autonomous vehicle testing companies to test in New Jersey. Echoing Gusciora’s comments, Benson emphasizes the importance of transportation equity and that shared driverless offer the potential to remove lessen the barriers for people to access jobs, healthcare, education, etc.
What Should Government Be Doing? #
Benson championed legislation that established the New Jersey Advanced Autonomous Vehicle Task Force. Alan Kornhauser was one of ten members of that task force that studied and made recommendations (3/2020 report PDF) as to how New Jersey can safely integrate autonomous vehicles on its streets, roads, and highways.
Benson pointed out that additional things that the state government needs to do to facilitate the deployment of driverless:
- Land-use and roadway infrastructure
- Communications – make sure they have the correct technology.
- Signage – need to have the right signage as well.
To this last point, Kornhauser reiterates his observation that improving road markings and signage for driverless vehicles will be of great help to the human driver.
From a legislative standpoint, Benson suggests that Ohio and Florida are examples for New Jersey to look to as it moves forward.
Driverless Legislative Lessons from the Sunshine State #
Florida State Senator (D-24 Pinellas County) Jeff Brandes chose autonomous vehicles as his “big idea” and he has been a champion since his initial term of office in 2012. After watching what he says were a thousand TED talks, it was clear to him of the potential impact of autonomous vehicles. From a personal level, he saw the impact driverless vehicles could have had on the convoys he led as an Army Reservist Transportation Officer in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
Florida’s growth and vibrant tourist industry are drivers for finding more efficient ways to move people. The Sunshine State’s approximate 22M residents are dwarfed by the 130M tourists it sees every year. Brandes says they cannot support the continuing population growth (projected to 23.8M by 2030) by building more roads. He sees shared driverless as part of the solution.
Influenced by Milton Friedman’s book, Capitalism and Freedom, his legislation places insurance companies in a central role in regulating the operation of autonomous vehicles in Florida. By putting a minimum level of insurance, $1M for level 4/5 vehicles in Florida’s case, insurance companies have an incentive to ensure the vehicles being tested are safe and operating within the intended ODDs.
This streamlines the process for companies to operate in Florida. As importantly, it reduces the need for state agencies to spend the effort in learning how to regulate an industry that is in a nascent stage. Brandes recommends that policymakers make it simple to do business by getting the insurance requirement right and making it clear to the operators. In Florida, once an operator shows they meet the insurance threshold, they are ready to hit the road.
From a deployment perspective, this seems to be working, as there are deployments at various levels in Miami, St. Petersburg, Lake Nona, St. Lucie, and Babcock Ranch. Jacksonville is evaluating how to transition and expand its three-decade-old downtown Skyway system using shared driverless shuttles.
Brandes indicates that another key to success was having buy-in from the secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation Secretary. The DOT was won over by the potential safety improvements, as well as the incentives for insurance companies to not allow unsafe vehicles on the road.
Challenges and Opportunities #
Brandes suggests that the pandemic accelerated the shift towards driverless, particularly for goods delivery. One of the things uncovered in real-world testing is the need to increase the size of the Operational Design Domain for the low-speed, relatively low-weight delivery vehicles. The issue is that the NHSTA rule restricting these vehicles to roads with speed limits of 35 MPH effectively limits their use by retailers located on high-speed arterials.
As a result, Brandes’ proposed legislation will allow these vehicles to cross streets and drive on roads with posted speeds of 45 MPH with certain restrictions. Brandes indicates that legacy federal codes can be burdensome and recommends that both state and federal rules need to accommodate much faster vehicle design cycles and shorter product lifecycles.
Alison Pascale, Senior Policy Strategist, Audi of America finds the enthusiasm of New Jersey government officials encouraging. She sees Florida as the gold standard for autonomous vehicle testing. Pascale asks how panelists are dealing with the concern of potential job losses.
A common theme in the answers of Gusciora, Benson, Brandes, and Kornhauser is that shared driverless offer the potential to grow the pie. Gusciora suggests it will create more jobs as it stretches the availability of public transit to locations where it would otherwise not go. Brandes adds that the missions of the people involved with public transportation will change. The technology will improve their missions.
From concierge service to maintenance, Benson sees new, higher-paid jobs to support driverless vehicles and their service. He also believes lower-cost mobility will create demand in other parts of the local economy. He does envision the potential need for workforce retraining in certain segments, such as long-haul trucking, but that is in the long-term.
Kornhauser points out that if shared driverless achieves its promise as the equivalent of a horizontal elevator, then technology will be replacing drivers in their individually owned vehicles. Part of the promise is that it gets to a cost of, as Kornhauser suggests, 25 cents per vehicle mile assuming an average sharing of 2 people per vehicle is not an outrageous expectation for volume cost.
Travel for All #
Prashanth Venkataram, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California, asks if,
“It is possible to ensure disability access in all shared autonomous vehicles without making manufacturers feel unwelcome, or do designs need to be more specialized (perhaps continuing to require an onboard human attendant)?”
Benson points out that the disabled community is not a monolith, as illustrated by Trenton, where approximately 12.6% of the population has one or more difficulties, whether from hearing, vision, cognitive ambulatory, self-care, or independent living difficulty. He says that it is to have all the people at the table early in the design, remove barriers that exist, and provide economic incentives to create solutions. He says that making it, “Accessible for all, makes it better for all.”
Kornhauser says the advantage is that we are at the beginning of driverless vehicle development. Building on the Kornhauser comment, Brandes suggests that linking apps with algorithms allows operators to get the right vehicle to the right person. He anticipates that there will be multiple vehicles in multiple missions. The opportunity and challenge are to align vehicles to fit the given mission.
Beyond designing people-centric vehicles, cities are starting to see look at how land use and parking should evolve to match a driverless environment. As an example, Brandes points to the Water Street Tampa project that is designing its parking garages to evolve to other uses as driverless potentially reduces demand for traditional parking. Part of this design includes flat plates, instead of sloped parking.
Riding on Sunshine – The Opportunities Are Endless #
Calling these vehicles mobile power plants, Benson thinks there are opportunities to reimagine what shared, electric, and driverless can do. In the short term, there are many short loops in Trenton that would benefit from a driverless shuttle. For instance, Benson expresses the desire to take a train to Trenton and travel the last mile to the statehouse in a driverless shuttle. He says that “New business ideas are limitless.”
Brandes points out that we are just at the tip of the iceberg as far as the efficiencies that driverless can bring. For instance, he calls the smartphone the best kiosk ever created. He believes that the market is going to take care of much of the infrastructure needed for implementation.
Coining a catchy tagline summarizing what driverless could mean for New Jersey’s capital city, Gusciora emphasizes that,
“Trenton autonomous drive makes the world thrive.”
Stay tuned for part 2, where Kornhauser will continue the conversation in the final session of the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit.
 Thank you for your service, State Senator Brandes.
 Some of these restrictions include “1. The low-speed autonomous delivery vehicle travels no more than 1 continuous mile on such a street or road, except that the vehicle may travel in excess of 1 continuous mile if authorized by the entity with jurisdiction over the street or road; 2. The low-speed autonomous delivery vehicle operates exclusively in the right lane, other than for the purpose of completing a turn; and 3. On a two-lane street or road where overtaking and passing another vehicle is unsafe because of traffic moving in the opposite direction or because of other unsafe conditions, and five or more vehicles are formed in a line behind the autonomous delivery vehicle, the low-speed autonomous delivery vehicle exits the roadway wherever a sufficient area for a safe turn-out exists, to permit the vehicles following to proceed.”