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driverless cars

Autonomous cars in Arlington

Who wants a robot to drive them to a Cowboys game?

Arlington visitors and residents will soon be able to request an autonomous vehicle on demand in the city’s entertainment district.

The city approved a one-year contract with Silicon Valley-based Drive.ai to offer a new way for people get to Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys games, attend concerts at the stadiums or go to restaurants or bars nearby. Arlington City Council approved the contract Tuesday.

The service will begin with a fleet of three autonomous vans on Oct. 19, according to a news release. Each van will hold three passengers. The vans will travel alongside other cars, but will be programmed to operate in a designated area. They will travel at up to 35 miles per hour.

Initially, each van will include a safety operator. The fleet may expand to five vans, if needed.

As the story notes, Drive.ai is also piloting a program in Frisco, where as it happens the Cowboys are headquartered. This kind of fixed-route, short-distance, low-speed use of autonomous cars makes sense to me, though if it’s ever going to be more than a novelty it will need to be done at a higher volume than this. Starting out like this is fine – I’m sure there will be plenty of refinements to make to the idea – but to make sense and be cost-effective and a means to reduce traffic you’re going to have to figure out how to move a lot more people at one time. We’ll see if Arlington is thinking along those lines.

The autonomous cars/mass transit debate

Seems to me this should be a “both-and” rather than an “either-or”, but you know how I get.

Autonomous vehicles that will outperform buses, cost less than Uber and travel faster than cars stuck in traffic today are two years away. Or 10. Or 30.

But visions of the future they’ll bring have already crept into City Council meetings, political campaigns, state legislation and decisions about what cities should build today. That unnerves some transportation planners and transit advocates, who fear unrealistic hopes for driverless cars — and how soon they’ll get here — could lead cities to mortgage the present for something better they haven’t seen.

“They have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time,” said Beth Osborne, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Transportation for America. “That might be a tad bit unrealistic.”

In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York’s subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.

Autonomous cars have entered policy debates — if not car lots — with remarkable speed. And everyone agrees that making the wrong bets now would be costly. Cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn. Driverless car boosters counter that officials wedded to “19th-century technology” will block innovation and waste billions.

[…]

Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour. They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transportation consultant.

“Let’s talk about what we can predict,” he said. “The problem of the city is a problem of sharing space. In 2100, the problem of the city will still be a problem of sharing space.”

By that logic, cities should invest even more in high-capacity rail and dedicated bus lanes in key corridors. Autonomous vehicles might handle other kinds of trips — rides from the train station home, or through suburban neighborhoods, or across the parts of Las Vegas without rail.

This possibility is not radically different from today. Uber and Lyft offer the closest approximation to how people will behave in an autonomous future, when consumers use cars they don’t own. Both companies are frequently cited by opponents of transit. But they also now back big transit investments, without which their riders in congested cities would be stuck in even worse traffic.

No system of autonomous cars could be more efficient than the New York subway, said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. Uber needs that transit, just as it will need electric scooters and bikes and the congestion pricing it also supports in New York to ensure that cheaper transportation doesn’t simply lead to more traffic.

I see a lot of value in finding ways to use autonomous cars as shuttles to help solve “last-mile” problems. Find places where getting people to and from bus stops across large parking lots or other non-pedestrian-friendly turf as a way to entice more bus usage, for example. Here in Houston, that might also mean connecting people in the farther-flung parts of the Medical Center to the light rail stops. I don’t see any value in claiming that autonomous cars will replace transit, or in arguing that transit projects should be put on hold until autonomous cars are more prevalent. We need solutions for the short term, and this is what can help for now. Let’s focus on that.

San Antonio looking at driverless car pilot program

Interesting.

Driverless cars could be sharing the road with San Antonio motorists in the not-too-distant future.

The City is requesting information about a potential autonomous vehicle pilot program that would inform how driverless cars are eventually used and regulated.

“As part of planning for the future, the City is seeking to better understand how emerging technology, such as autonomous vehicles, may improve connectivity by filling transportation service gaps, improve safety by reducing potential driver error, and also shift the focus to moving people and not just vehicles,” City officials stated in a request for information, or RFI. Issued Friday, the RFI calls for responses to be submitted by Aug. 20.

[…]

The City Council’s Innovation and Technology Committee in June identified three zones in which to test so-called smart city technology, innovation geared toward making residents’ lives more efficient. The Medical District, Brooks, and downtown were chosen as proving grounds for future initiatives that would be eventually be rolled out citywide.

City officials have said the medical center would likely serve as the local nexus of autonomous vehicle testing.

You can see a copy of the RFI here. The city had announced its intention to make this request back in May. Here’s a bit more about what this means.

The RFI is part of the city’s overall transportation plans for the expected population increase in the region, which will mean millions more vehicles on the roads in the coming years. Potential pilot projects may include autonomous vehicles used within properties like Brooks — the 1,300-acre, mixed-use development on the city’s South Side — which could be used in conjunction with a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus route, or the 900-acre campus of the Medical Center, which has more than 27,000 medical facilities and tens of thousands of employees. Other options include an autonomous shuttle on Joint Base San Antonio military installations or between those properties.

The city of Frisco is doing something like this, though they are (or should be) already at the implementation phase. As an enhancement to transit, using fixed routes in last-mile locations, it makes a lot of sense. I figure something like this will eventually come to Houston – I’m sure Metro is thinking about this sort of thing – but until then I’m happy to wait and see what other cities’ experiences are.

Waymo moves forward on a self-driving car service

Get ready, because they’re coming.

Waymo, the driverless-technology company spun out of Google, has agreed to purchase as many as 62,000 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for use in a ride-hailing service set to begin commercial operations later this year.

The announcement on Thursday is the latest sign that Waymo is counting on a rapid liftoff for the service. In March, it agreed to purchase up to 20,000 compact cars for the service from Jaguar Land Rover beginning in 2019.

Both the Chrysler Pacifica minivans and the Jaguar cars will be equipped with the radars, cameras and sensors that Waymo has developed to enable the vehicles to drive themselves on public roads. Waymo plans to start its service in Phoenix, then expand to the San Francisco area and to other cities across the country.

Waymo began working with Fiat Chrysler in 2016 and has built a fleet of driverless minivans that it has been testing in Phoenix; Mountain View, Calif.; Austin, Tex.; and Kirkland, Wash.

According to the Associated Press, Waymo aims to have an automated vehicle rideshare service in Phoenix by the end of this year, so look out for that if your travel plans include Phoenix. We could begin to see them in Texas following that – one presumes initially in Austin, since that’s where the tests have taken place – as a bill to regulate automated vehicles passed the Lege last year. Waymo appears to have taken the lead in getting this technology to work, so we’ll see how this goes. Would you ride in a driverless car if one is available in the next few months? I gotta say, I’ll probably wait till version 2 is available, but maybe I’m just being a wuss. What about you?

Who’s gonna clean up that self-driving car?

Here’s a question I hadn’t pondered before.

Who will clean self-driving vehicles?

I found myself wondering this recently as my son and I tidied the family car after a road trip. We’d been driving for only five hours, but we had produced two grocery bags of trash: water bottles, parking stubs, wrappers from lunchtime hoagies, reading material, a roll of Scotch tape, and a ping-pong ball among other miscellany that had accumulated over the short time. It wasn’t unusual. In my family, I’m the one who remembers to clean out the car, so I’m all too familiar with the volume and medley of mess that can be generated in vehicle regularly used by adults and kids.

Yet with companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft planning to launch their first generation of self-driving cars as shared taxis, it’s not yet clear who or what will be there to clean up the half-drunk Starbucks cup, wipe down the mystery stickiness on the seat, or handle even less hygienic situations. It’s not just a trivial matter: it’s an issue of sanitation and rider well-being—one more pressing for future users than you might imagine.

Consider the many dimensions of mess. As I thought about mess in cars, I wasn’t just thinking about cleaning up the slightly gross piece of lettuce from my son’s hoagie that had fallen on the floor mats. I was thinking about cleaning up an even grosser kind of mess—the kind that you make if you are carsick.

[…]

I spoke with Molly Nix, the UX lead for self-driving Uber cars, and one of only two product designers working on what the company deems the “self-driving Uber human experience,” which includes everything from the app interface to the logistics of motion sickness. As it turns out, Uber’s haptic feedback technology might not become reality. Nix explained that the patent is a reflection of the kinds of things the Uber team is thinking about, but that, “It’s important to remember there is such a thing as overengineering a solution to a problem like motion sickness,” she said. “Nothing beats windows.” Staring outside may be the best remedy for passengers, and choosing when you need to open a window may be better than relying on a hyperdesigned haptic feedback system giving you bursts of air.

But even less thought seems to have been put into cleaning. When I asked Nix what would happen if someone made a call on a porcelain telephone in a self-driving car, she declined to answer. I asked if she and her team talk about it at the office. She again declined to answer. What will any kind of self-driving car garbage cleanup look like in reality? “We are still envisioning what it might look like,” said Nix.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, said that the company doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the aftermath of people getting sick or making other serious messes in self-driving cars, in part because the vehicles Uber’s testing now still have backup human drivers. “Since we have an operator in the car, we have not really explored exactly what that looks like,” Abboud said. She added she imagines that such messes would probably be handled in the same way the company plans to handle general cleaning: dispatching the car to a facility for a human to clean it and get it back on the road. There are currently two operation centers that clean the driverless cars Uber is testing, one in Phoenix and one outside Pittsburgh. Perhaps Uber would create more of those, Abboud suggested.

The same seems to hold for other companies. Waymo, for example, has partnered with rental car titan Avis for routine maintenance of its self-driving vehicles in Phoenix—though the few available details a Waymo spokesperson sent to me simply suggest that cars will “need to be charged and refueled, cleaned, and presentable for riders.” The overview did not include information about how, exactly, this happens. (Lyft did not respond to a request for comment on the cleaning issue.)

It’s possible that companies could program cars to return to a home base for upkeep after every ride. But it’s an unlikely solution considering the potential for wasted time, wasted energy, and increased congestion. Instead, as of now, solutions still seem to rely on human intervention. Someone will likely need to alert Uber or Waymo to any mess in a car. Then someone will need to clean it. (No Roombas for car interiors yet.) Abboud alluded to a potential mechanism that might help Uber’s systems identify such messes in the future, but wouldn’t say if that would be a video camera inside the car or something else. “We don’t really have that figured out yet,” she said.

There are other categories of mess that will surely appear in the self-driving cars of the future, some of which you won’t be able to get out of your head once you’ve been forced to think about them. I apologize in advance, but these are the questions we must grapple with. Self-driving cars are supposedly going to eliminate traffic and provide a superior option to mass transit and car ownership, but not if everyone is grossed out by the user experience. If your response to that is “well, buses and rail cars are often dirty, too”, then my response to you is “yes, and that’s one big reason why many people who could use transit choose not to”. There’s more to this than just engineering, and if the companies that are vying to bring us this future don’t solve these other problems, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

Self-driving car service coming to North Texas

Coming to the city of Frisco in July, a public-private venture pairing up with a California-based outfit called Drive.ai, for something that’s a little like shuttle service and a little like mass transit on a small scale.

The initial service will be available to transport the 10,000 employees working at offices at Hall Park to retail and dining options nearby at The Star in Frisco, where the Dallas Cowboys are headquartered. For many, the distance (just shy of a mile) is too far to walk but too short to warrant a trip by car.

People will be able to request a ride through a smartphone app. The service will be free during a six-month test run. Negotiations are already under way to bring a more permanent service to Frisco after that.

[…]

Safety is a priority, Andrew Ng of Drive.ai said at the Frisco event. And that’s why working with local authorities is so important. The company will be able to coordinate with first responders, help with public awareness campaigns and offer routes that add value. Local officials will also coordinate with the company when there are special events or road closures that affect traffic flow.

“Together we can make this thing as safe as possible,” Ng said.

Artificial intelligence is great at maneuvering fixed routes but has difficulty recognizing hand signals from a construction worker directing traffic, Ng explained. That’s where local leaders can step in and help.

He asks people to be aware of the bright orange self-driving vehicles, be lawful and be considerate around them — just like drivers are when they see school buses on the road. The vehicles also have four external screens to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers on the road.

Initial trips will have a human available in the driver’s seat of the orange vehicles to take over at a moment’s notice. The next stage puts the person in the passenger seat as a chaperone to answer passenger questions. The final stage lets the self-driving cars go solo with a remote operator available if needed.

Drive.ai is shouldering all of the costs involved in the pilot project. A dollar amount is not being disclosed.

“We’re invested in the region,” said Conway Chen, vice president of business strategy for Drive.ai. “We see this as a great test ground for other cities.”

James Cline, president of the Denton County Transportation Authority, said he believes self-driving vehicles have a place in public transportation and mobility. Whether that role is transporting people on that last mile from a bus stop to their house or replacing buses entirely remains to be seen.

“The challenge is going to be getting people to accept it,” he said.

This Fortune story has a bit more about Drive.ai, which I’d never heard of before now, as well as a map of the rute this car will follow. It’s not to scale, but given the description in the story my guess is that if it were more pedestrian-friendly, maybe more people would walk instead of needing a ride. Or maybe I’m just projecting. If the idea here is to make transit more feasible in these non-pedestrian-friendly places by solving the last-mile problem, that seems like a good thing. If not, we’ll just have to see. For this arrangement, Drive.ai – more likely, the venture capitalists funding Drive.ai – are paying for everything. How this might work in the real world is another question I’d like to examine. We’ll check back later in the year. The Trib and Texas Monthly have more.

Metro will pilot automated vehicle shuttle at TSU

from the inbox:

Texas Southern University students may have another transportation option on campus in the fall semester: an autonomous shuttle. Today, METRO’s Board of Directors gave the nod to the autonomous vehicle (AV) project, a first for the agency.  Although the low speed vehicle will drive itself, an operator will be on board at all times.  The pilot will take place along TSU’s mile-long, famed Tiger Walk. Several members of the public spoke at the meeting in support of the project.

“We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Texas Southern to pilot this autonomous vehicle. The location is ideal and its transportation studies program provides the type of academic expertise needed. It also allows us to explore how this technology can be applied on a greater scale,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Riders will not be charged to use the shuttle, which will be about the size of a minivan, similar to those used in Las Vegas and Arlington at AT&T Stadium.

“Our Texas Southern University family, led by President Dr. Austin Lane and Provost Dr. Kendall Harris,  is thrilled about the METRO decision today. Student, faculty and visitor access will be enhanced, especially for nighttime classes and activities,” said Dr. Carol Lewis, professor and emeritus director of TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

If successful, the project is designed to eventually extend the AV shuttle route to connect with METRORail and the Eastwood Transit Center.

METRO’s Board approved spending up to $250,000 for the first phase.

“The Board’s action clears the way for us to request proposals from vendors and select a vehicle.  We are excited to begin studying how this could enhance our service overall,” said Kimberly Williams, METRO’s chief innovation officer.

The pilot will help METRO study how autonomous vehicles could be used to improve first and last mile transit connections, as well as other uses in places, such as business parks and medical centers.

Along with METRO, the planning committee for the project includes Texas Southern University, the city of Houston, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Our university transportation research center will work with the partners to assess a myriad of variables associated with AV operation, such as user acceptance, vehicle operation, accessibility for persons with disabilities and electrical utilization and recharging. The university looks forward to contributing to the advancement of technologies for our Houston community,” Dr. Lewis added.

METRO was a key part of the application that helped Texas secure a designation as an AV proving ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016.

This was also reported on the Metro blog, and Swamplot noted an earlier mention of automated vehicles for Metro outside of this pilot. Using this as a way to help conquer the first/last mile problem makes a lot of sense – I’ve advocated a tighter integration with B-Cycle for the same purpose – so I’ll be very interested to see how this goes and what Metro’s vision for this is beyond the TSU campus if this is a success. For what it’s worth, though, as Streetsblog notes, in a different world we’d already have a light rail line in this same place on the TSU campus. What might have been, you know? Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on this because it’s very likely to start showing up elsewhere in the city. KUHF has more.

Downtown of the Future

It’s very futuristic.

City planners’ ambitious 20-year vision for downtown Houston includes more of everything that has transformed the central business district into a more vibrant destination.

More apartments, restaurants and shops. More walkable parks and attractions. More innovative startups and Fortune 500 businesses.

But with new technological advances and cultural shifts, Central Houston Inc. also envisions a future when downtown denizens overwhelmingly use driverless cars, electric vehicles and ride-sharing apps to get around.

“By starting now and working together, we can position downtown to be a leader in connectivity innovation and adapt to these new changes,” Central Houston President Bob Eury said as he unveiled the “Plan Downtown” vision at the organization’s annual meeting Friday.

Central Houston imagines a downtown featuring electric vehicle charging stations, dedicated lanes for autonomous buses, and pickup and drop-off zones for ride-sharing vehicles and autonomous taxis.

Sidewalks will have digital “way-finding stations” with maps to help visitors navigate downtown. Public Wi-Fi will extend to pedestrian walkways, parks and other public spaces, Eury said.

What will be absent from downtown’s streets of the future? Traffic lights.

“With autonomous vehicles, there’s no need for traffic signals,” Eury said. “We should be planning for streets of the future, which may not have street lights.”

I wish there were a black-and-white newsreel to accompany this, like the ones from the 50s that talked about what the world would be like in the year 2000. You’ll have to use your imagination when you read the report for that. Nancy Sarnoff, Swamplot, BisNow, and the Houston Business Journal have more.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

Here’s your chance to get involved and shape the direction of transit in the greater Houston area going forward.

What is your vision for transit service in the Greater Houston region?

METRO needs your help in creating a bold vision for the region’s transit network. METRO’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services in the Houston region. We intend to focus on providing more transportation choices to more people, and it is critical that we get your input.

The Regional Transit Plan will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, the long-range transit plan approved by voters in 2003. METRO Solutions laid out a vision for the future transit system that included light rail, an expanded local bus system, new commuter bus facilities and much more. Since that time, METRO has been working to deliver that plan.

Our transit system must help people get to where they need to go today, as well as in the future. Through this process, we will look for ways to better serve the needs of our current customers, as well as develop strategies to attract new customers to the transit system. The regional transit plan will be designed to serve area residents through 2040.

The METRO Board of Directors established the following goals and guiding principles in developing the Regional Transit Plan.

Goals

  • Improve Mobility
  • Enhance Connectivity
  • Support Vibrant Communities
  • Ensure a Return on Investment

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to join us in developing a plan for a transit system that best serves our area’s residents, businesses and visitors.

We’re Listening

  • What kind of transit system would best serve your needs?
  • How do feel about the goals of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan?
  • If you do not use transit today, what would entice you to use it tomorrow?
  • What are three important things METRO should keep in mind as it develops the Plan?

See here, here, and here for the background, and click the link at the top for the Regional Transit Plan presentation and the link to give your feedback. Metro will be holding a series of community meetings through July and August, beginning on June 27, to solicit feedback. I and several other bloggers had the opportunity to get a preview of this earlier in the week – see Glissette Santana’s writeup in the Urban Edge blog for some of the details – and I can tell you that Metro has been thinking about and planning for a lot of possibilities. The starting point is the 2003 referendum and the unfinished business it leaves behind, and it includes rail, BRT, bus system improvements, coordination with other regional transit agencies, partnerships with rideshare services, pilot programs for automated vehicles, and more. Community input is needed both to highlight underserved areas of need and to build the political capital that will enable passage of the next referendum in 2018. Check it out, attend some meetings, and let Metro know what is important to you and for them.

Signings and vetoes

Greg Abbott does his thing.

Gov. Greg Abbott has vetoed 50 bills that were passed during the regular legislative session, his office announced Thursday.

That’s several more than he vetoed following the last session and the most a governor has doled out since 2007.

Abbott offered a number of common explanations for his vetoes, calling the bills unnecessary, too costly or too burdensome. He vetoed at least five bills for the same reason: The House bill’s author asked for a veto because he prefers the Senate companion.

[…]

Another measure he vetoed Thursday was Senate Bill 790, which would have kept in operation an advisory group that makes recommendations to the state on its women’s health services.

Abbott said in his veto statement that SB 790 “does nothing more than extend the expiration date of a governmental committee that has already successfully completed its mission.”

“Rather than prolong government committees beyond their expiration date, the state should focus on programs that address more clearly identifiable needs, like my call for action to address the maternal mortality rate during the special session,” Abbott said.

Janet Realini, vice chair of the women’s health advisory committee, said wrapping up the group was premature.

“There’s 1.8 million women who need publicly subsidized services, family planning in particular, and right now we’re serving less than a quarter of those, so I think we have a long way to go,” she said.

You can see a full list of the vetoed bills at the story. A couple of bills relating to topics that will be on the special session agenda were among the casualties. SB790 was probably the bill whose rejection drew the strongest reaction; Sen. Borris Miles and Rep. Donna Howard vented their frustration, with Howard noting that “at no point during the past six months had the governor’s office expressed any concerns to me over the legislation”. We knew going in that Greg Abbott was a weak leader. Everything that isn’t on the veto list will be enacted (a few will become law without Abbott’s autograph), including the Sandra Bland Act and the driverless car bill. Click over and see if anything you liked got the ax.

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

Once again with driverless car legislation

Third time’s the charm, right?

Rep. Charlie Geren

State Rep. Charlie Geren isn’t about to let Texas get left in the dust when driverless vehicles start easing their way into everyday life. Especially since car manufacturers need somewhere to test them and could one day need someplace to mass produce them.

“I don’t want General Motors, or Ford, or Volkswagen, or Uber or anybody going anywhere else because Texas isn’t quite ready for this yet,” Geren told The Texas Tribune late Thursday.

The Fort Worth Republican this week filed House Bill 3475, which seeks to lay the framework for driving autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Geren’s under no impression that the technology is well tested — or well trusted — enough that Texans are going to be walking into dealerships and buying driverless cars anytime soon. But he wants to get the ball rolling so car companies can expand testing of the technology in the state.

[…]

Among other things, the current version of Geren’s bill would require the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle obtain a surety bond or insurance worth $10 million. The vehicles would have to be able to operate in compliance with existing traffic laws.

The automobiles would also be equipped with devices that could provide data on the vehicle’s automated driving system, speed, direction and location before at the time it’s involved in an accident.

Geren said his bill could change as those in the vehicle industry weigh in on it.

“I’m trying to get everybody in the business together on one bill,” Geren said.

It was industry opposition that stalled a 2015 bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, authored in hopes of setting some guidelines for autonomous vehicles in Texas. Among other things, it would have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for driverless cars.

Google opposed that bill two years ago but declined to publicly explain why at the time. Months later, the company began using a Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with self-driving equipment to test driverless cars in Austin. The tech giant’s autonomous vehicle efforts have since spun off into their own company called Waymo, which opposes Geren’s bill.

“Waymo continues to work with legislators who have an interest in the safe development of fully self-driving cars,” a company spokeswoman said late Thursday. “We believe this legislation is unnecessary and may inadvertently delay access to technology that will save lives and make transportation safer and easier.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposed the 2015 legislation out of fear that rules could have unintended consequences that would stymie development of the technology. The group echoed that sentiment on Friday, but did not speak specifically to Geren’s placeholder bill.

“If a state chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to [autonomous vehicles], it is imperative that such action be focused on removing impediments to the safe testing and deployment of this technology,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance.

Some car manufacturers would prefer more guidelines.

“We think the right path is to come up with legislation that deals with where we are today and for the foreseeable future,” said Harry Lightsey, a public policy executive director for General Motors.

He said that autonomous technology has a long way to go before Americans trust it enough to give up control of the wheel but the landscape is changing so fast that some sort of framework would aid testing. That is key to gaining the kind of safety and performance data that would earn the public’s trust in the technology, Lightsey said.

“All of us have a lot to learn about full, self-driving cars and their impact on the urban landscape,” Lightsey said.

See here and here for more on Ellis’ 2015 bill. Believe it or not, there was a driverless car bill filed in 2013 as well. We’ve been talking about this for longer than you might remember. I don’t know that Rep. Geren’s bill will do any better than those two did, but it’s there just in case a consensus can be reached.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Uber moves driverless car pilot to Arizona

This happened right before Christmas, so I’m just catching up to it now.

The day after California regulators shut down Uber’s self-driving car program in San Francisco, Uber on Thursday packed up its autonomous vehicles and hauled them to Arizona, vowing to resume testing there.

The move was a quick rebound by Uber after its pilot program in San Francisco fell apart after just one week. Instead of giving in to California regulators and applying for a $150 permit to test its self-driving cars on public roads, Uber on Thursday once again signaled it doesn’t need to play by its home state’s rules.

“Our cars departed for Arizona this morning by truck,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. “We’ll be expanding our self-driving pilot there in the next few weeks, and we’re excited to have the support of Governor Ducey.”

The company released photos showing its silver Volvo SUVs loaded onto the back of a semi truck owned by Otto — the autonomous trucking startup that Uber acquired in August.

[…]

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Thursday welcomed the self-driving Ubers to his state, where they will not need a special permit to drive on public roads, and positioned California’s neighbor as a welcoming alternative for Uber and other disruptive innovators.

“While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses,” he wrote in a statement. “California may not want you, but we do.”

Ducey last year signed an executive order supporting the testing and operation of self-driving cars and establishing a Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee to advise officials on how to advance the progress of autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars are treated the same as any other vehicle in Arizona, Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Timothy Tait wrote in an emailed statement.

“We hope this cooperation and common-sense approach, combined with this state’s favorable climate, encourage even more companies to test autonomous vehicles in Arizona,” he wrote.

See here for the background. Arizona’s permissive approach is certainly one way to do this, though one wonders what their response will be if Uber decides that even their rules are too restrictive and so it will just ignore them as they had done in California. It should also be noted that there are some twenty (!) other companies testing driverless cars in California now, following the rules Uber refused to comply with. One presumes Uber will eventually want their cars to operate in CA, so either they’ll have to suck it up or get the US Congress to pass a law requiring all states to allow them to operate as they see fit, much like they want the Lege to do to cities in Texas. I wonder if Ken Paxton will file a lawsuit over the egregious federal interference with states’ rights if that happens. The Fiscal Times, Engadget, the Guardian, and the Washington Post have more.

Uber pulls driverless cars from San Francisco

Score one for the California DMV.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars off San Francisco’s streets Wednesday after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles revoked their registrations, effectively ending the company’s controversial pilot program after just one week.

The move marked a dramatic end to Uber’s standoff with state regulators over the San Francisco-based company’s insistence that it did not need a permit to test its self-driving cars, even though the state said it did and other companies testing such cars have complied. It’s not clear when or under what conditions self-driving Ubers might return to California’s roads.
“We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement, “but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

The DMV’s crackdown was a setback for Uber in what many viewed as the ride-hailing giant’s attempt to re-write California’s autonomous vehicle rules. The $68 billion company caught state officials by surprise when it launched its fleet of self-driving vehicles on San Francisco roads last week. After being forced to bow to state regulators, Uber said Wednesday that it has no plans to apply for a permit, but is “open to having the conversation.”

By revoking the registrations for all 16 of Uber’s self-driving cars in California, the DMV made good on a previous threat to shut down the company’s unauthorized pilot program. The company has been running a similar pilot program in Pittsburgh since fall without major incident.

“Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else, through the issuance of a testing permit that can take less than 72 hours to issue after a completed application is submitted,” a DMV spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible.”

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto also sent a letter to Uber, promising that the department fully supports the autonomous technologies.

“We are committed to assisting Uber in their efforts to innovate and advance this ground-breaking technology,” the director wrote. Though the state’s letter indicated that Uber had expressed interest in applying for a permit, the company was non-committal late Wednesday.

[…]

Uber’s decision to take its cars off the streets came as growing numbers of people expressed concerns over the vehicles’ safety.

Brian Wiedenmeir, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said he saw self-driving Ubers make multiple illegal and unsafe “right-hook” turns across bicycle lanes during a test ride before the program’s launch last week.

“Those vehicles are not yet ready for our streets,” Wiedenmeir wrote in a post on the coalition’s website.

See here for the background. The Guardian goes into more detail about the safety concerns.

Concerns are mounting about how the cars behave in dense urban environments, particularly in San Francisco, where there are an estimated 82,000 bike trips each day across more than 200 miles of cycling lanes.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has released a warning about Uber’s carsbased on staff members’ first-hand experiences in the vehicles. When the car was in “self-driving” mode, the coalition’s executive director, who tested the car two days before the launch, observed it twice making an “unsafe right-hook-style turn through a bike lane”.

That means the car crossed the bike path at the last minute in a manner that posed a direct threat to cyclists. The maneuver also appears to violate state law, which mandates that a right-turning car merge into the bike lane before making the turn to avoid a crash with a cyclist who is continuing forward.

“It’s one of the biggest causes of collisions,” said coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy, noting that the group warned Uber of the problem. Company officials told the coalition that Uber was working on the issue but failed to mention that the self-driving program would begin two days later without permits, he said.

“The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch,” he said, “shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”

Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler told the Guardian in an email that “engineers are continuing to work on the problem”, and said that the company has instructed drivers to take control when approaching right turns on a street with a bike lane. She did not respond to questions about how the cars, Volvo XC90s, detect cyclists and what kind of training and testing the firm conducted before implementation.

Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has raised formal objections to partially automated vehicles, said research raises serious alarms about the ability of drivers to properly intervene in semi-autonomous cars.

“It’s very clear that people are not good at paying attention,” she said, adding, “We’re waiting for enough people to die for something to happen. It’s not a great way to make policy.”

Local advocates noted that the Uber cars have been caught doing four out of the top five causes of collisions or injuries in the city – running red lights, going through stop signs, unsafe turns and failing to yield to pedestrians.

“These behaviors we’re seeing,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of advocacy group Walk San Francisco, “are some of the most dangerous behaviors in San Francisco that lead to traffic deaths and severe injuries.”

The technology just isn’t quite there yet. Relying on human backup for these self-driving vehicles is a bad idea that won’t work outside of a controlled environment because people in a driverless car aren’t going to be paying attention to the operation of that car, just like passengers in regular cars today don’t. On top of that, Uber did its usual disregard the rules and barrel ahead on their own thing, and this time the government agency they attempted to bypass stood firm. I have no doubt that this technology is coming – the Pittsburgh experiment is still going on, with no major incidents – but that doesn’t mean it will or should happen on Uber’s schedule. The fact that regulators need to catch up is a feature here, not a bug. Wired and the NYT have more.

Driverless Ubers arrive in San Francisco

Here they come, ready or not.

Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

[…]

Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

In a statement, the California D.M.V. said, “20 manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”

Of course there’s a question about whether or not Uber is compliant with relevant law as it proceeds. It wouldn’t be Uber if there wasn’t at least a little bit of questionable legality. And it keeps on escalating.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” wrote Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV in a strongly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, who oversees Uber’s autonomous group. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesman didn’t have immediate comment Wednesday on the DMV letter.

“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” said Lior Ron, senior director of engineering for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, during a presentation with journalists Tuesday.

California requires companies testing autonomous cars—defined as having technology capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”—to have a permit issued by the state and to have a test driver who is able to take over driving.

Mr. Soublet in a call with reporters Wednesday dismissed Uber’s argument that the car isn’t self-driving because a human is behind the wheel taking control. “They’ve equipped the vehicles with technology that allows them to operate autonomously and that’s the key,” Mr. Soublet said.

In his letter to Uber, Mr. Soublet said 20 companies—including Alphabet Inc.’s Google—are approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles that are being driven by more than 480 permitted test drivers in California. “They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he wrote.

Uber may be balking at disclosure requirements from the DMV as part of its permitting process. The department said companies with an autonomous vehicle permit are required to hand over accident reports within 10 days of an incident and to disclose how many times humans had to take the wheel, both of which are available for public inspection.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of law and expert on autonomous car law, said Uber may have a plausible argument as the law allows some interpretation. Still, he said in an email, Uber’s actions are “in tension with the law if interpreted in context. This was a law intended to apply to aspirationally autonomous vehicles. It was in large part about building trust, and Uber is not building any trust in its systems or practices by doing this.”

Awesome. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Anyway. The rollout here will be bigger than the one in Pittsburgh, and the hilly terrain of San Francisco will no doubt give the driverless cars – pardon me, the hip term now appears to be Highly Automated Vehicles, or HAVs – a sterner test than the one before. Well, except for weather conditions, as Pittsburgh is now experiencing snow, which is something San Francisco cannot provide. We’ll see how it goes this time. Forbes and TechCrunch have more.

How’s that Uber driverless car pilot going?

A few bumps in the road, as it were.

Uber

Uber driver Nathan Stachelek was pulled off to the side of the road when he saw the self-driving car turn the wrong way.

It was the night of Sept. 26 and the car he had spotted, one of the autonomous Ford Fusions that Uber is testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was heading through the city’s Oakland neighborhood, just steps from the center of campus for the University of Pittsburgh. Stachelek watched the car turn off Bates Street and onto Atwood, a one-way road, going in the wrong direction. From a distance he couldn’t tell whether the car was driving itself, or its human operator had made a mistake. Stachelek took out his phone in time to shoot a brief video of Uber’s vehicle backing up and driving away, then uploaded it to Facebook.

“Driverless car went down a one way the wrong way,” he wrote. “Driver had to turn car around.”

[…]

Stachelek isn’t the only Pittsburgher to spy one of Uber’s self-driving cars in an awkward spot. Late on the night of Sept. 24, another Uber driver and his two passengers encountered a self-driving Uber and a second car pulled over at the intersection of Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue, about five minutes driving from the Advanced Technologies Center (ATC), Uber’s research facility for driverless technologies. The second car had its hazard lights on and was being inspected by a man with a lanyard around his neck in the apparent aftermath of an accident.

“I couldn’t see any of the damage,” says Jason, the Uber driver, who requested Quartz withhold his last name because he feared being deactivated by the company. But “there’s no reason for a self-driving Uber car to be pulled over in the way that it was, with another car right behind it with its flashers on.” Amber McCann, a Pittsburgh resident and one of Jason’s passengers that night, told Quartz the intersection is known as a place “where there’s a ton of rear-ending accidents.” Her friend and the car’s other passenger, Jeanette McCulloch, provided Quartz with a photo she took while driving by.

Uber said it was aware that another car had tapped the fender of one of its self-driving Fords on the night of Sept. 24. The company said that was the only incident it had heard of involving one of its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and that it was reported as the “lowest level”; it didn’t specify whether the car was in autonomous mode at the time. The company also didn’t have any record of a self-driving car turning the wrong way on a one-way street, either while in autonomous mode or because its human driver made a mistake.

While it would be easy to write these incidents off as minor mishaps, both suggest how much work Uber has left to do on its autonomous software, even as it’s begun putting real passengers in the cars. One reason Uber’s vehicles are currently traveling only a small area of Pittsburgh is because those are supposed to be the streets its engineers have carefully mapped and taught the cars about. If that’s really the case, no self-driving car should be turning the wrong way down a one-way street—nor should its safety driver, who is in theory the final check on the car’s autonomy.

Driverless vehicles also tend to operate in a cautious, hyper-logical manner and follow the rules of the road to a tee. Uber, again via its mapping efforts, has tried to prepare its cars to avoid certain tricky situations they might run into. On one street near the ATC in Pittsburgh, Uber engineers have instructed the self-driving cars to hang close to the curb because trucks making turns are more likely to swerve into the oncoming lane. By that same logic, the cars should also know certain intersections are hotspots for rear-ending accidents and be on the alert to avoid them, much as a savvy human driver would be. Uber’s approach differs from that of other companies such as Nvidia, which have focused on teaching computer systems to drive in a more adaptive, human-like way—by being introduced to situations a few times, and then applying what they learn to other encounters on the road.

See here for the background. There’s video at the link if you want to check it out. The Quartz story has been picked up by other outlets – Engadget, OppTrends, Jalopnik – and while they include the response from Uber about the incidents in question, the headlines are all negative from Uber’s perspective. I’m sure they’d like for that to turn around by the time this pilot ends.

Who’s afraid of Uber’s driverless car test?

Transportation safety officials, at least some of them.

Uber

Uber’s decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators.

Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major U.S. city.

“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

But advocates of autonomous vehicles say that the technology might never have happened if companies had to wait for governments to pass rules first. With nearly 37,000 Americans dying in car crashes every year, largely because of driver errors, technologists have stressed the critical need to push forward on testing driverless cars on public roads.

[…]

[Roger Cohen, policy director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation] and Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous-vehicle expert at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, are both comfortable with the tests because of the safety drivers. Still, they acknowledged that doesn’t mean it will be collision-free. “You’re not going to have perfection. There is going to be trial and error, and it’s not going to be problem free,” Cohen said.

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven just shy of 2 million miles as of Aug. 31. New York City taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day, Cummings said. Uber declined to reveal how many miles its driverless cars have logged on public roads but said it will be testing Ford Fusions there, then Volvos. The program will be opt-in, with a select group of Uber customers getting an email asking if they want to participate. Both vehicles have been vetted on test tracks in Pittsburgh, the company said.

See here for some background. We’ll get some data on the safety question one way or the other, and while I’m wary of this it is important to remember that the point of comparison is not “no problems at all” but “the amount of problems one would expect with human drivers instead of robot drivers”. These things could experience some problems and still be an improvement in safety. Or not – like I said, we’ll find out. I’m more interested in the rider experience. How many of Uber’s customers that they have invited to give this a try will do so? What will they think, and how many of them will want to do it again? How will the people who aren’t invited to try this feel about it – jealous, relieved, something else? I can’t wait to hear the answers.

Driverless taxis debut in Singapore

Not fast enough, Uber.

The world’s first self-driving taxis will be picking up passengers in Singapore starting Thursday.

Select members of the public will be able to hail a free ride through their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup. While multiple companies, including Google and Volvo, have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for several years, nuTonomy says it will be the first to offer rides to the public. It will beat ride-hailing service Uber, which plans to offer rides in autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, by a few weeks.

The service will start small — six cars now, growing to a dozen by the end of the year. The ultimate goal, say nuTonomy officials, is to have a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018, which will help sharply cut the number of cars on Singapore’s congested roads. Eventually, the model could be adopted in cities around the world, nuTonomy says.

For now, the taxis only will run in a 2.5-square-mile business and residential district called “one-north,” and pick-ups and drop-offs will be limited to specified locations. And riders must have an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service. The company says dozens have signed up for the launch, and it plans to expand that list to thousands of people within a few months.

The cars — modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics — have a driver in front who is prepared to take back the wheel and a researcher in back who watches the car’s computers. Each car is fitted with six sets of Lidar — a detection system that uses lasers to operate like radar — including one that constantly spins on the roof. There are also two cameras on the dashboard to scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights.

The testing time-frame is open-ended, said nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma. Eventually, riders may start paying for the service, and more pick-up and drop-off points will be added. NuTonomy also is working on testing similar taxi services in other Asian cities as well as in the U.S. and Europe, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘We’ve learned enough,'” Iagnemma said.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, said autonomous taxis could ultimately reduce the number of cars on Singapore’s roads from 900,000 to 300,000.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker said. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

Uber is planning to roll out its driverless car pilot in Pittsburgh shortly, but they will not be first in line. The claim that driverless cars will ultimately solve traffic congestion is one of which I remain deeply skeptical, but we’ll see, perhaps sooner than I think. In the meantime, you can read more about NuTonomy, which has its origins at MIT, and this pilot test here, here, and here. Would you ride in one of these things?

Driverless Ubers

Ready or not, here they come.

Uber

The option to hail a ride in a self-driving car, which was science fiction just a few years ago, will soon be available to Uber users in Pittsburgh, the first time the technology has been offered to the general public.

Within weeks, the company announced Thursday, customers will be able to opt into a test program and summon an autonomous Ford Fusion. But since the technology has not been perfected, the cars will come with human backup drivers to handle any unexpected situations.

Although other companies including Google are testing self-driving cars on public roads, none offers rides to regular people. As an enticement, the autonomous rides will be free, the company said.

Uber, which has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh, has no immediate plans to deploy autonomous cars in other cities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, CEO Travis Kalanick said development of the vehicles is paramount for the San Francisco company, which has grown exponentially after starting seven years ago.

“We’ve got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it’s not a side project for us,” he said. “This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber.”

Without drivers, the cost of hailing a ride will be cheaper than owning a car, changing the way we all get around, Kalanick has said.

By using human backup drivers, Uber is basically testing the technology and taking people along for the ride, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who studies self-driving technology.

“Part of this is marketing in the sense that they’re going to be doing continued research and development of these systems,” he said.

The story notes that Uber has acquired Otto, the startup company that provided kits for driverless trucks. As you know, I remain skeptical, not of driverless cars themselves – I have no doubt the technology is coming, probably sooner than I’m comfortable with – but of the grand predictions of how they will reshape society. I think the questions are more complicated, and the time frame is longer, than some people think. But who knows? I’m sure the lure of free rides will give Uber plenty of demand for this test, and there will be much to learn from it. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. And hey, driverless Ubers sure would solve that pesky background check issue, elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal, Kevin Drum, the Guardian, and the Chron’s Chris Tomlinson have more.

Driverless trucks

Coming to a highway near you?

Picture an 18-wheel truck barreling down the highway with 80,000 pounds of cargo and no one but a robot at the wheel.

To many, that might seem a frightening idea, even at a time when a few dozen of Google’s driverless cars are cruising city streets in California, Texas, Washington and Arizona.

But Anthony Levandowski, a robot-loving engineer who helped steer Google’s self-driving technology, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system.

Levandowski left Google earlier this year to pursue his vision at Otto, a San Francisco startup the he co-founded with two other former Google employees, Lior Ron and Don Burnette, and another robotics expert, Claire Delaunay.

Otto is aiming to equip trucks with software, sensors, lasers and cameras so they eventually will be able to navigate the more than 220,000 miles of U.S. highways on their own, while a human driver naps in the back of the cab or handles other tasks.

For now, the robot truckers would only take control on the highways, leaving humans to handle the tougher task of wending through city streets. The idea is similar to the automated pilots that fly jets at high altitudes while leaving the takeoffs and landings to humans.

“Our goal is to make trucks drive as humanly as possible, but with the reliability of machines,” Levandowski says.

[…]

Otto hasn’t set a timetable for completing its tests, but hopes to eventually retrofit all the U.S. trucks on the road. That would encompass more than 4.7 million trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.

The startup touts its technology as way to make up for a worsening shortage of truck drivers as more of them retire without enough younger drivers to replace them. Last year, the shortage stood at 47,500 and, unless recent trends change, will rise to nearly 175,000 by 2024, according to the American Trucking Associations.

The trade group hasn’t taken a stand on self-driving technology, but may draw up a policy later this year, said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy.

“We are paying close attention because this could be huge for trucking in terms of labor costs and safety,” Osiecki says.

Levandowski insists self-driving trucks aren’t as scary as they might sound. Robot truckers are less likely to speed or continue to drive in unsafe conditions than a human, and will never get tired. Between 10 and 20 percent of the roughly 4,000 fatal accidents in the U.S. each year involving trucks and buses are linked to driver fatigue, based on estimates gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“It’s really silly to have a person steering a truck for eight hours just to keep it between two lines on the highway,” Levandowski says.

Here’s Otto’s website if you want to learn more. There’s a lot of logic to this idea – a lot of highway driving is open road, with little skill needed to keep things rolling. Having a human driver on board who can rest during the long, boring parts and be ready for the more challenging segments of the drive makes sense, and with the human driver still in the picture it won’t threaten the parts of the rural economy that depends on truck traffic. It’ll be interesting to see how this goes, especially if Otto markets itself at the drivers.

One curious bit from this NYT writeup.

California motor vehicle regulations prohibit Otto’s vision of a truck traveling on the freeway with only a sleeping driver in the cab, for example. But many states would permit that technical advance.

“Right now, if you want to drive across Texas with nobody at the wheel, you’re 100 percent legal,” said Mr. Levandowski, who as a Google engineer, helped write draft legislation that permitted self-driving vehicles, which later became law in Nevada.

Not sure where they get that idea, because bills relating to driverless cars have not made it out of the Legislature. It may be that this relates to state and federal roads – i.e., the highways – and not local roads, for which legislation is needed to allow access. I’d have to do more research on that. In any event, this is something to keep an eye on, even if the name Otto has some possibly unwanted connotations, at least for people of my generation. Tech Crunch has more.

Are driverless cars ready or not?

GM and Lyft think theirs are pretty close.

Lyft

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company whose services rival Uber Technologies Inc. The program will rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., a developer of autonomous-driving technology.

Details of the autonomous-taxi testing program are still being worked out, according to a Lyft executive, but it will include customers in a yet-to-be disclosed city. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app.

[…]

The new effort is directed mostly at challenging Alphabet and Uber. The Google self-driving car program has gained a sizable lead over conventional auto makers via testing in California and other states, and it received an additional boost this week through a minivan-supply agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Uber, much bigger than Lyft, has its own self-driving research center in Pittsburgh and is preparing to usher autonomous vehicles in to its fleet by 2020.

I alluded to this yesterday. My reaction remains: Next year? Really? That’s pretty darned aggressive. It’s also pretty interesting considering that the people who are making driverless cars have been suggesting that we should maybe slow our roll a little.

Engineers, safety advocates and even automakers have a safety message for federal regulators eager to get self-driving cars on the road: slow down.

Fully self-driving cars may be the future of the automotive industry, but they aren’t yet up to the demands of real-world driving, several people told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during a public meeting Friday.

A slower, more deliberative approach may be needed instead of the agency’s rapid timetable for producing guidance for deploying the vehicles, according to an auto industry trade association.

[…]

A General Motors official recently told a Senate committee that the automaker expects to deploy self-driving cars within a few years through a partnership with the ride-sharing service Lyft. Google, a pioneer in the development of self-driving cars, is pushing Congress to give the NHTSA new powers to grant it special, expedited permission to sell cars without steering wheels or pedals.

But many of those who addressed the meeting, the first of two the agency has scheduled as it works on the guidelines, described a host of situations that self-driving cars still can’t handle:

—Poorly marked pavement, including parking lots and driveways, could foil the technology, which relies on clear lane markings.

—Bad weather can interfere with vehicle sensors.

—Self-driving cars can’t take directions from a policeman.

—Inconsistent traffic-control devices such as horizontal versus lateral traffic lights.

Until the technology has advanced beyond the point where ordinary conditions are problematic, “it is dangerous, impractical and a major threat to the public health, safety and welfare to deploy them,” said Mark Golden, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

There have been thousands of “disengagements” reported in road tests of self-driving cars in which the vehicles automatically turned control over to a human being, said John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog.

“Self-driving cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention,” he said.

There’s also the concern that driverless cars, which by definition will be connected to the Internet, will be vulnerable to malware. We’re not at a point where today’s cars can be successfully hijacked, as dramatized on a recent episode of Elementary, but it is something the industry is gaming out now. The larger point here is that our driverless car future may be farther off than we think. Or maybe it’s closer than we think. We’ll see how that taxi pilot goes.

One more thing:

Executives at Lyft and Uber have said one of the top hurdles to their success is navigating a patchwork of regulations that govern the use of autonomous vehicles and liabilities. In an effort to ease regulatory concerns, Lyft will start with autonomous cars that have drivers in the cockpit ready to intervene—but the driver is expected to eventually be obsolete.

“We will want to vet the autonomous tech between Cruise, GM and ourselves and slowly introduce this into markets,” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s product director, said in an interview. That will “ensure that cities would have full understanding of what we are trying to do here.”

Well, at least we won’t be fighting about fingerprints any more. I shudder to think how much money will be dumped into those lobbying – and possibly electioneering – efforts.

More on the Austin rideshare referendum

The fallout continues to fall.

Uber

Austin voters on Saturday decisively rejected Uber and Lyft’s $8.6 million bid to overturn the city’s rules for ride-hailing apps, bringing a stunning conclusion to the most expensive campaign in city history.

The failure of Proposition 1 brought new threats that the ride-hailing giants would retreat from Austin as the neighborhood and labor groups that defeated them on a shoestring budget celebrated.

“Uber, I think, decided they were going to make Austin an example to the nation,” said longtime political consultant David Butts, who led the massively outspent anti-Prop 1 campaign, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice. “And Austin made Uber an example to the nation.”

[…]

Following the results Saturday night, Lyft reiterated its threat to terminate service in the city as of 5 a.m. Monday.

“Lyft and Austin are a perfect match and we want to stay in the city,” said Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the rules passed by City Council don’t allow true ridesharing to operate.”

That came just hours after Uber finally put a date and time to its pullout threat: 8 a.m. Monday.

“Disappointment does not begin to describe how we feel about shutting down operations in Austin,” Uber Austin general manager Chris Nakutis said in an emailed statement. He added: “We hope the City Council will reconsider their ordinance so we can work together to make the streets of Austin a safer place for everyone.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who had urged voters to reject Prop 1 with the hopes of getting Lyft and Uber back to the negotiating table, held out hopes for more talks.

“We’re at a place right now where we welcome Uber and Lyft to stay in the community, and I hope that they’ll continue to talk with me,” Adler said Saturday night. “We need TNCs (transportation network companies) in this community so we have mobility choices, but how we’re going to do that and who we do that with, obviously, at this point, is something that we need to work on and work out.”

My opinion continues to be that while Uber and Lyft are nice to have, the city of Austin did quite nicely without them for a long time. It will find a way to carry on if they leave. And while the concept of transportation network companies is a good one, there’s no law saying it has to be those two providing the service. To me, a fine outcome of their departure will be for another company to take advantage of the opportunity to emerge in a market that isn’t dominated by a couple of operators who care primarily about crafting an advantage for themselves.

All of this has to make you wonder. Why is fingerprinting such a line in the sand? I can see the argument about it limiting the pool of drivers in a needlessly broad way, and I can see the argument that it’s a burden on those who wish to drive. In either of these cases, there is a sympathetic story to be told, and surely a lot of consensus for finding improvements to the process. Surely launching a multi-million dollar effort to repeal an ordinance that went through the normal lawmaking process, after trying unsuccessfully to recall the Council member who led the process to pass that ordinance, is the last arrow in one’s quiver, nor the first thing you try. So why was this a hill that both companies were so willing to messily and expensively die on? Well, here’s one possible reason for that.

Lyft

The San Francisco and Los Angeles district attorneys have accused Uber of failing to uncover serious crimes on the records of some drivers allowed to operate in the two cities. The attorneys said they discovered 25 drivers in the two cities whose criminal records had gone undetected, and at least some records included felonies. Notably, one of the drivers whose criminal record went undetected was a convicted murderer who spent 26 years behind bars.

The discovery would appear to put pressure on Uber to adopt a more thorough background check process in order to stay in consumers’ good graces. But there’s more at stake here: If the company does adopt more rigorous background checks, which could include fingerprinting, drivers seeking classification as employees could try to use the move as evidence they are indeed employees and not private contractors, says one labor attorney.

The issue at hand is how much control Uber exercises over its drivers, according to Aimee E. Delaney, leader of the
 Labor & Employment Practice Group at the Chicago headquarters of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. Generally speaking, evidence of an employer attempting to control a person’s behavior can be used to determine that the worker is an employee.

One question that can help determine if someone is an employee is “Does the company control or have the right to control what the worker does and how the worker does his or her job?” according to the IRS website. So theoretically, asking someone to take an extra step to show they are qualified to do the work could constitute a form of control. The IRS admits however, “There is no ‘magic’ or set number of factors that ‘makes’ the worker an employee or an independent contractor” when it comes to control.

“I sympathize with where they are at because I think they are in a difficult position,” Delaney says of Uber, adding that the company has to “walk kind of a fine line.”

If the company simply ran background check materials through an additional database, that probably wouldn’t feed the case of drivers seeking employee classification. But if Uber puts a new requirement on drivers to be fingerprinted, that might come up in such a labor dispute.

Delaney, who represents employers in labor arbitrations, says that while fingerprinting wouldn’t necesarily provide enough fodder to nudge drivers into classifications as employees, she imagines it’s an idea that has crossed the minds of Uber’s legal team.

That makes a lot of sense, no? It’s all about protecting the business model, which depends on the labor being as low-cost as possible. At least until such time as driverless cars become available and make the whole thing moot.

What may also be moot is having this argument at a municipal level. The next step of this battle has already begun.

Today, Senator Charles Schwertner, MD (R-Georgetown) announced he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session designed to establish consistent and predictable statewide regulation of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft, also known as transportation networking companies (TNCs). The 85th Session of the Texas Legislature convenes in January 2017.

“It has become increasingly clear that Texas’ ridesharing companies can no longer operate effectively through a patchwork of inconsistent and anti-competitive regulations,” said Schwertner. “Any legitimate safety or liability concern regarding ridesharing clearly deserves to be addressed, and I welcome all parties to engage productively in that discussion. But as a state with a long tradition of supporting the free market, Texas should not accept transparent, union-driven efforts to create new barriers to entry for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition.”

[…]

The issues surrounding ridesharing have also had a significant economic impact on the citizens of Senate District 5, including approximately 40,000 Austin residents living in Williamson County. As a source of employment, ridesharing provides fulltime or supplemental income for over 5,000 Uber or Lyft drivers living in Williamson County, and countless other residents of north Austin, Cedar Park, Round Rock, and Georgetown depend on ridesharing services to commute to work, travel to the airport, or get home safely from downtown.

“I’ve heard from dozens of constituents in my district, including many Austin residents, who depend on either the service or revenue that ridesharing provides,” said Schwertner. “People are free to select whatever method of transportation they prefer, but we shouldn’t be trying to restrict the options available to our citizens when it comes to addressing our transportation needs.”

Yes, I’m sure the anti-Prop 1 forces, which were outspent by more than fifty to one, were in the thrall of Big Taxi. You do you, Senator. I’d advise you to have a statement about economic impact ready for your constituents when that driverless rideshare car initiative comes to Texas. Getting back to the main issue here for a moment, I will note again that Sen. Robert Nichols, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, was last quoted saying that a statewide law should have a fingerprint component in it. Whether that’s still his position now, or will be after Uber and Lyft back a dump truck of lobbyist money into his office, remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, the Council members in Houston who have expressed an opinion so far have all been 1) Republican, and 2) in favor of fingerprinting. So this fight next year may be more multi-dimensional than it first appears. Ben Wear, who has a really good take on this, the Observer, and the Rivard Report have more.

Reimagining public transportation is hard work

Noted for the record.

Four years ago, Helsinki launched an innovative bus service as part of a long-term plan to make cars irrelevant.

It was called Kutsuplus—Finnish for “call plus.” And it was one of the world’s first attempts to reinvent carpooling for the algorithm age.

The service matched passengers who were headed roughly in the same direction with a minibus driver, allowing them to share a ride that cost more than a regular city bus but less than a taxi. It was a bit like anUber for buses—or more accurately, likeUberPool—except that Kutsuplus was running for nearly two years by the time Uber got into the ride-sharing side of its business.

Operated by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, Kutsuplus was the best-known component of Helsinki’s and Finland’s intelligent traffic system. Ridership grew steadily. But late last year, Helsinki authorities shut down Kutsuplus, deeming its cost to taxpayers too high. The blue minibuses picked up their last passengers on December 31.

[…]

For passengers, the system was fairly straightforward. You would log onto a website, top up your account, select the starting and ending points for your journey, and walk to the closest bus stop to wait for the pick up. The average fare in 2014 was around €5—about US$5.50. By comparison, a single ride by bus or metro is €3. Taxi fares start at €6 and can go much higher depending on the distance traveled.

The project had two main targets: assessing technological feasibility and user acceptance. Judged on these goals, it was a success.

“The research proposal tackled a number of different problems and we were able to solve them to a surprising degree,” says Sampo Hietanen, who until recently worked at ITS Finland, a nonprofit that promotes intelligent transport systems. “We made some wild promises, such as predicting arrival times. That’s not really something you can control yourself, because congestion and other circumstances affect it too.”

Riders took to it. The growth rates matched what the researchers had projected: Eventually the system had 21,000 registered users.

[…]

Two things ultimately killed Kutsuplus. First was the need for massive scale to make the economics of ride-sharing really work. Second was the significant public cost of doing that.

The transport authority had big expansion plans for Kutsuplus. From the original 15 buses, the fleet was to grow to 45 vehicles in 2016, 100 vehicles in 2017, and later into the thousands.

Achieving scale with this model is crucial in order to optimize trips across an entire fleet. With a small number of buses and users, it’s more difficult to match up passengers who are going in the same direction around the same time. This explains why Kutsuplus buses were frequently close to empty. The two times my family and I used Kutsuplus, we had the bus to ourselves.

The math looks different if you add lots of riders and lots of buses. Scaling up to 100 vehicles would have increased the efficiency of Kutsuplus threefold, Rissanen says. Hietanen agrees. “There’s a huge difference between mass transit that works in some areas some of the time, and mass transit that works everywhere all the time,” he says.

Scale could not come without funding, however—and in an austere budget environment, that was a problem. Although the €3 million it cost to run Kutsuplus was less than 1 percent of the Transport Authority’s budget, the service was heavily subsidized. The €17 per-trip cost to taxpayers proved controversial.

Rather than investing many millions more into Kutsuplus to bring it to scale, city officials backed away. They let the pilot come to an end. Rissanen wasn’t happy with the decision.

“The minibuses were meant for high-volume usage,” Rissanen says. But the politicians “got scared and didn’t want to invest in it in an economic downturn.”

See here and here for some background on the Kutsuplus service. Thomas highlighted this story in a comment on my post about driverless cars and the future of mass transit, in Houston and elsewhere. Kutsuplus is an awful lot like what Tory Gattis had hypothesized, except that these vehicles still had human drivers. Given the economic factors cited, it may well be that taking those human drivers and their salaries out of the equation would have made this viable, but we’ll have to wait awhile to know that for sure. (Although there are some services like this in other cities, including New York and Washington, DC, so perhaps we’ll have a better idea sooner than that.) A couple of points to note here: One is that the reason this system came about is because Helsinki’s existing mass transit system has a key flaw: its buses run mainly north-south, so taking east-west trips are hard to do. Two, despite the initial success of the Kutsuplus, there’s no evidence to suggest it caused any reduction in driving. To be sure, it may not have lasted long enough for an effect to be seen, and as we know from Christof Spieler, it’s not about getting people who drive now to stop and change what they’re doing. It may be this was a glimpse of our future that was snuffed out before it had a real chance to succeed, and it may be that this was another pie-in-the-sky vision from people who will support any form of transit except the ones we have now.

Will driverless cars fix Houston’s traffic problems?

Tory Gattis thinks they might.

The second step is understanding the ramifications of coming new technologies — specifically self-driving cars. While the general vehicle fleet will take decades to turn over as people slowly replace their cars, we can expect extremely rapid adoption among taxi services as soon as these vehicles are available in the early 2020s. The economics are simply too compelling: Almost 80 percent of the cost of a ride is the driver. One estimate has the typical ride dropping to $3.25, with shared rides going for $2.43 or even as low as $1 with SUVs carrying up to six passengers at once along a shared route.

Customized SUVs could be made with private individual compartments, so that passengers traveling in generally the same direction could share a ride without interacting. When vehicle pulls up, an indicator could tell you which door to enter for your compartment, then alert you again when it’s time for you to get out based on the destination you put into your smart phone. A private ride combined with shared prices and efficiency: the best of both worlds.

The impact on traffic congestion could be dramatic, as fewer vehicles carry more riders. Analysis by MIT, Stanford, and others estimate that shared rides could reduce the number of vehicles needed to carry the same number of trips by 70 to 90 percent. Quite the silver bullet to reduce traffic congestion! Then there’s the icing on the cake: Automated drivers are expected to dramatically reduce crash injuries and space required for parking, which will free up a tremendous amount of much-needed land in our cities.

All indications are that these super-cheap, point-to-point autonomous taxi services will essentially replace most bus and rail transit: Most trips would be much faster and more direct at nearly the same cost. In fact, transit agencies like METRO may switch their fleets to such vehicles, providing better service to their customers. Helsinki’s transit agency is already a pioneer of this transition, offering on-demand mini-vans available via smart phone app.

Gattis goes on the describe Managed eXpress Lanes — MaX Lanes, for short – as a way to efficiently ferry around all those multi-occupant driverless SUVs. I have no doubt that driverless cars are coming and that they will change how we do cars – indeed, I have good reason to believe that. What I’m less sure about is the effect it will have on how people behave. As cheap as this form of “mass” transportation may be, people aren’t just motivated by price. Status, comfort, convenience, luxury, self-expression – these are all things people look for in their mode of transportation, and there’s no reason to think that will be any different with driverless cars.

In a utopian world, as my colleague Brian Fung writes, driverless cars would make everything more efficient. You’d never have to waste time looking for parking. Cities, in fact, could get rid of it. Vehicles that today sit empty most of their lives could be put to maximum use instead, transporting one passenger after another.

This ideal scenario, though, assumes some kind of all-knowing central dispatcher: a company, or service, that would distribute cars to serve the most people the most effectively, with an omniscient eye on the entire network. And, as more companies dive into this space — General Motors and Lyft announced an eye-popping new partnership Monday — it’s tempting to think we’re witnessing the start of an epic battle for the coming autonomous monopoly.

Who will get there first, winner-take-all? General Motors working with the ride-hailing startup Lyft? Or Ford, as it’s rumored, teaming with Google? Toyota? Or Uber, which seems to think it doesn’t need a traditional automaker ally at all?

“Uber, their whole goal is to minimize the time from request to pickup, and to do that means you have to have a lot of vehicles,” says Dave King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “And if they’re the monopolists, maybe it’s close to being efficient. But they’re not going to be the monopolists.”

None of these companies will, he predicts.

That’s because autonomous cars will require the same market segmentation we already have today (whether consumers want to own these vehicles or share them or use some hybrid service in between).

“If you think the rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan are going to get into just a lowly old car, I don’t see that happening,” King says. They’ll want the Audi of autonomous cars, while you may gladly hitch a ride in the Kia equivalent. And even if I’m not truly driving a sports car myself, I may want to ride in something that feels sporty.

“The idea that everybody wants the same experience for personal travel is strange to me, because nobody’s ever wanted that,” King says. “We don’t buy the same bicycle, we don’t buy the same model of car. Some people like the bus, some people like the train.”

Sure, a ride in that automated Uber SUV may be cheap, but I’d bet a lot of people would be willing to pay extra to not have to share the ride. I mean, unless you’re the last person picked up and the first person dropped off, a part of your ride will be spent going to and from other people’s pickups and dropoffs, and who wants to spend all that excess time in a car? Note that this is not the case with plain ol’ mass transit – you get on and off at your stops, with no extra side trips. Also, maybe you like listening to your tunes through the car’s stereo system instead of earbuds. Maybe you just don’t want to be in a car with other people, even if you can be hermetically sealed from them; I confess, this “SUV with individual compartments” idea conjures for me images of being packed into a carton like eggs, or slotted like a LEGO action figure into a car built with the iconic bricks.

And while the egg carton individually-compartmented SUV might be a great deal for daily commuters who travel on predictable schedules, the fact remains that a fair number of our driving trips are spontaneous and unplanned – “Hey, let’s go out to dinner tonight”, “Sure, I’d love to meet you for a movie that’s starting in 30 minutes”, “Dad, I need to go to Jenny’s to work on our science project”, “He’s got a fever and he’s barfing, we need to get him to a doctor”. How much tolerance will people have to wait for a robot car to pick them up? (Side question: How many of these driverless Ubermobiles are going to have to be on standby for this, and where will they be when they’re not in use? Idle cars do not maximize profits, and as with commuting people may not want to make three or four other stops before they get where they want to go, especially if they’re in a hurry.) It’s not like car manufacturers are going to stop marketing to individual owners (*), after all.

And if owning an automated car is as common and pervasive as owning a car is today, then we may not get any reduction in traffic at all.

We’re starting to see professional reports echoing long-standing concerns about how driverless cars will affect our cities. This new one from KPMG, in particular, is getting a lot of press.  It’s actually a focus group study about the transport desires of different generations, but it confirms the thought experiments that many of us have already been laying out for a while.

Much depends on whether these cars are owned or spontaneously hired like taxis, Uber, and Lyft.  A taxi model is definitely better in its congestion impacts, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.  The ownership model is closer to the status quo, and the status quo always has enormous power.  Driverless taxis will not always be available on demand, especially in suburban and rural areas, so a legitimate fear of being stranded will make people in those areas prefer the security of having a car just for them. And of course, that’s just the effect of rational concerns about relying on taxis.  Less rational desires for car ownership, as an expression of identity or symbol of liberty, will also not vanish overnight.

This leads to a nightmare scenario that University of Washington’s Mark Hollenbeck laid out in our recent Seattle Times panel.  Paraphrasing Mark:  A suburban father rides his driverless car to work, maybe dropping his daughter off at school. But rather than park the car downtown, he simply tells it to drive back home to his house in the suburbs.  During the day, it runs some other errands for his family.  At 3 pm, it goes to the school to bring his daughter home or chauffeur her to after-school activities.  Then it’s time for it to drive back into the city to pick up Dad from work.  But then, on a lark, Dad decides to go shopping at a downtown department store after work, so he tells his car to just circle the block for an hour while he shops, before finally hailing it to go home.

This is really easy and obvious behavior for a driverless car owner.  It reduces the number of cars someone needs to own, and reduces pressure on inner city parking, but would cause an explosive growth in vehicle trips, and thus in congestion (not to mention emissions and other impacts).  Just the commute behavior doubles car volumes, because the car now makes a two-way trip for each direction of the commute, instead of just one.  And if everyone shopping downtown has a car circling the block waiting for them, well, that level of congestion will far exceed what’s generated by cars circling for parking today.  It could pretty well shut down the city.

And while increased safety is touted as the single biggest boon from driverless cars, there’s reason to fret about that as well.

For the past five years, my collaborators and I in the Vision Sciences Lab at Harvard University have been exploring the differences in capabilities between people and today’s best AIs. My studies have focused on simple tasks, like detecting a face in a still image, where AIs have become reasonably skilled. But I have become increasingly unsettled by the implications of our research for very challenging AI tasks. I am especially concerned by the implications for the extremely challenging task of driving a car. Self-driving cars have enormous promise. The improvements to traffic, safety, and the mobility of the elderly could be dramatic. But no matter how capable the AI, humans just behave differently.

[…]

The biggest difference in capability between self-driving cars and humans is likely to be theory of mind. Researchers like professor Felix Warneken at Harvard have shown that even very young children have exquisitely tuned senses for the intentions and goals of other people. Warneken and others have argued this is the core of uniquely human intelligence.

Researchers are working to build robots that can mimic our social intelligence. Companies like Emotient and Affectiva currently offer software with some ability to read emotions on faces. But so far no software remotely approaches the ability of humans to constantly and effortlessly guess what other people want to do. The human driving down that narrow street may say to herself “none of these oncoming cars are will let me go unless I’m a little bit pushy” and then act on that instinct, but behaving that way will be one of the greatest challenges of making human-like AI.

The ability to judge intention and respond accordingly is also central to driving. From determining whether a pedestrian is going to jaywalk to slowing down and avoiding a driver who seems drunk or tired, we do it constantly while behind the wheel. Self-driving cars can’t do this now. They likely won’t be able to do it for years. But this isn’t just about routine-but-confusing interactions like that between the Google self-driving car and the Mountain View bus.

Even the best AIs are easy to fool. State-of-the-art object recognition systems can be tricked into thinking a picture of an orange is really an ostrich. Self-driving cars will be no different. They will make errors—which is not so bad on the face of it, as long as they make fewer than humans. But the kinds of errors they make will be errors a human would never make. They will mistake a garbage bag for a running pedestrian. They will mistake a cloud for a truck.

In other words, we may be farther away from achieving the kind of AI needed to make self-driving cabs and buses feasible than we now think.

Of course, none of this may happen. Ultimately, we’re all just guessing. All I’m saying is that we should not rule out the human factor when gaming out how driverless cars will change how we live. We tend to adopt new technology to suit our needs, including the needs we didn’t know we had. Maybe a larger percentage of people in the future will forego buying cars and exist solely on the various forms of mass transit than in the present, but it’s not clear to me that that will happen. We’re a car-centric culture that loves our automobiles and needs to be prioritized, right? I know I’ve heard that argument before. I hope I live long enough to see if that remains the case.

(*) Unless of course the Big Government of the future forbids it. If you listen closely, you can hear Ted Cruz’s head exploding.

Driverless car technology update

I have a personal stake in this story.

James Kuffner, the head of Google’s robotics division and one of the original team of ten who started its self-driving car work, has left the company for a job at Toyota’s $1 billion research institute in Silicon Valley.

His departure will come as a blow to the search and advertising giant, which has been plowing forward with a number of robotics projects including the self-driving car, which it hopes to offer for public use some time next year.

“It’s becoming clear that in the next phase of machine learning, access to lots of data to find and fix corner cases and to make a robust system is going to be very important, and I think Toyota is very well positioned to do that with its resources and its data,” Kuffner said in an interview at the CES expo in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

[…]

Toyota’s billion-dollar investment in the center was only announced in November, but the institute has already opened for business in two locations: one at the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto and one in Kendall Square in Cambridge. They were chosen for their proximity to Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TRI’s mission is to take fundamental robotics research into products that can benefit all of society. One of the loftier visions is the development of cars that are incapable of crashing due to their complex AI systems, but the institute will also look at home-help robotics for the elderly and other projects.

[…]

To be sure, the goal of a completely self-driving car that handles any situation and cannot crash is some distance away, but Kuffner said a lot will be possible in the next few years.

“We’re actually closer than people think to having self-driving cars on the road,” he said. “It is an evolution. There is a continuous spectrum between full manual control and full autonomous control, and there’s going to be phased deployments.”

He cited some of the current technologies making their way into cars, such as lane assist and adaptive cruise control.

“These safety features are creeping into lots of cars you can buy today, and the pace is increasing, so I think people will be happily surprised in the next five years at how our vehicles have changed.”

James is my cousin, and I found this story on his Facebook page in January. Needless to say, we’re all quite proud of him. I talked with him about his work on driverless cars a couple of years ago when we were in Portland visiting family, actually did an interview with him that I hoped to publish here, but we never got clearance from Google on it. I remember him telling me that when they started out, their intent was to make the autonomous cars follow all of the rules of the road, but quickly learned that this was not only impractical but dangerous. For example, in highway merge situations, sometimes you have to exceed the speed limit to ensure safety. They aimed instead at making the car behave more like a median driver, by which I mean one whose behavior is in the middle of the range of how drivers behave. It’s a challenging question to model behavior like this, and my guess is that’s one reason why we are seeing this phased implementation of the technology.

Anyway. The driverless car business continues to attract a lot of money and a lot of discussion about what the future of driving will look like. And a member of my family is playing a leading part in that. I think that’s pretty cool.

Driverless car testing in Austin

Be on the lookout.

After years of experimenting with its groundbreaking autonomous vehicle technology almost exclusively in California, Google confirmed Monday that it has begun testing one of its self-driving vehicles in Austin.

A white Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with the company’s sensors and software began making trips without the aid of a driver in the city within the past week, said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google self-driving car project. Another vehicle will join it in the area for testing this week.

While California and other states have updated their laws to address self-driving vehicles, neither Texas nor Austin has followed suit, meaning Google did not need to get permission before initiating such testing in the city. Company officials briefed Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and the city of Austin about the testing in advance, Haroon said. No public funds are involved in the testing, and the company is not providing any funding to local or state entities related to the testing.

The expansion of the project to Texas comes as the company’s experimental fleet has safely logged over a million miles and its software has matured to be able to simultaneously detect hundreds of different activities going on around a vehicle, Haroon said. Two “safety drivers” will be in each of the vehicles whenever traveling in Austin in self-driving mode.

“They’re there to see how the vehicle is behaving, provide feedback to our engineering team and, if needed, take over [driving],” Haroon said.

Until now, Google’s vehicle testing has mostly centered around the San Francisco area, where the technology giant is based. The new testing will be focused in an area north and northeast of downtown Austin, according to company officials. The cars will not drive autonomously on any area highways, for now. Google officials are hoping Austin will provide its self-driving vehicles with an environment different from what researchers have already explored in recent years.

“We think there may be some geographic differences,” Haroon said. “There could be some differences in driver/pedestrian/bicyclist behavior. We really won’t know until we’ve started testing more.”

See here for previous driverless car blogging. As the story notes, this is not the first time one of these vehicles has visited Austin, though it is the first time for this kind of testing. I’m guessing this will all be fairly low-key – Google would certainly prefer it to be that way – but you never know. Beta testing is often exciting in unanticipated ways. If you happen to see this car tooling around, leave a comment and let us know.

Can you make a living as an Uber driver?

Not a very good one, it would seem.

Uber

Last year, Uber claimed its full-time New York City UberX drivers were making a median wage of about $90,000 a year.

Drivers responded by telling Business Insider’s Maya Kosoff that they were often making less than minimum wage, with yearly earnings in the range of $10,000 to $41,000.

When UberX arrived in Philadelphia, Emily Guendelsberger, a senior staff writer at the Philadelphia City Paper, became curious about how much drivers would make.

So in January, she went undercover.

In an article in the Philadelphia City Paper, she explains that on her first trip as a driver, the money looked good:

As I let him off at 30th Street Station, he waves goodbye and thanks me, and says he’s rating me five stars. The fare pops up on my phone: $10.85. The price of almost two beers for 15 minutes of driving! And if my neighbor had taken a cab, with tip, it would have been an even $20.

But in the long run, Guendelsberger found that the numbers didn’t add up. One reason was Uber’s massive fare cut, which took place just before she started driving. And since UberX drivers aren’t licensed with the company and use their own cars, expenses such as insurance and gas add up, while the car’s value depreciates.

Over the course of 100 rides, her hourly rate averaged out to $17. But after subtracting the 28% cut that Uber takes and 19% for car-related expenses, her actual pay ended up being $9.34 an hour.

I drafted this a few days ago, and since then Wonkblog has noted another data point for this discussion.

Yesterday, a group called Requests for Startups released results from a survey of 897 people who’ve worked with 78 different companies that fall into the “on-demand economy” bucket. It’s a rough and imperfect sample, but a time when there’s still precious little data on the characteristics of this new workforce, it gives us some idea of what they’re going through.

The topline finding: These workers’ biggest problem is making enough money. That was the most common reason for these people to drop the job they had, with 42.9 percent saying it didn’t generate enough income. And part of that has to do with the fact that they just couldn’t get enough work, with 49.2 percent of respondents saying lack of hours was their biggest “pain point.”

This has always seemed to me to be a potential Achilles heel for so-called “rideshare” services like Uber and Lyft. They are dependent on there being a steady supply of willing drivers, with new ones coming in to replace those who drop out or cut back. What happens if people stop finding them to be an attractive gig? I presume the answer to that is “Uber offers more pay to its drivers”. What effect that would have on their business model is a question I’m not qualified to answer. I know that the financier types that are busy throwing billions of dollars at Uber are never wrong about anything, but I see this as a reason to be skeptical. Your mileage may vary.

“So what?” you may say. Isn’t Uber’s future a driverless car future anyway? Well, someday, I suppose. How far out that someday is matters – five to ten years is a lot better for Uber’s long term plan than fifteen to twenty years would be. There’s also the fact that someone has to own those driverless cars. A huge part of Uber’s appeal to investors is that they basically have no capital costs, and they assume very little risk. All of that is on their drivers. But if our future is one of people owning fewer cars, then doesn’t that suggest Uber will have to own more of its fleet? That in turn would mean they’d need to have employees who manage inventory and maintenance and whatnot. Again, I’m hardly the expert on this, but it seems to me that sooner or later Uber is going to have to change how it does business, and once that happens, who knows? Check back in a decade or so and we’ll see.

Driverless car bill is dead

So much for that.

A bill to update Texas law for the age of driverless cars has stalled due to two serious roadblocks: Google and major car manufacturers. Both the technology giant and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group, have come out against a proposal from state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to create a pilot program aimed at monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in Texas.

Google has previously encouraged the development of similar laws in other states including California and Nevada, yet is refusing to publicly explain why it is opposed to such a measure in Texas. At last week’s committee hearing on the bill, a Google representative registered as opposed to the measure — but declined to testify as to why. The Texas Tribune got a similar response from Google after repeated requests: “We have no comment to offer on this.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

“We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

[…]

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, adjourned the hearing without a vote on the bill. Ellis said Tuesday that he does not plan to ask Nichols for a vote on the bill. He described the opposition from Google and the automobile manufacturers as likely insurmountable this session, but predicted both groups will regret that the state didn’t create a clear legal framework for testing the technology in Texas.

“I’m willing to bet that you’ll have people in the industry coming back to the Legislature saying, ‘We want some clear instructions on what we can and cannot do,’” Ellis said.

See here for the background. I get the logic of waiting to see what technologies actually come out before acting, but the Lege’s every-other-year schedule plus its often-clogged pipeline for getting bills that aren’t considered a top priority passed could leave it well behind said technology. That would be true of anything they did pass as well, as it could become quickly obsolete, so I suppose it’s a matter of what approach one prefers. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in 2017.

Driverless car legislative update

Like just about everything else under the sun, there were bills filed last week to deal with driverless cars.

As self-driving cars move from futuristic concept to plausible technology, the Texas Legislature is looking to become a magnet for the fast-developing industry.

Three lawmakers have filed bills aimed at encouraging the use of the technology in Texas while allowing for some government oversight.

“It’s the kind of futuristic thinking you easily associate with California, New York,” state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said. “Texas ought to not be behind the curve. We ought to be ahead of the curve.”

Last week, Ellis filed Senate Bill 1167, which would create a pilot program aimed at both monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in the state. Under the bill, the Department of Public Safety would create minimum safety requirements for autonomous vehicles. Companies building or working with self-driving cars would have to notify DPS before they could drive them on public roadways. Any such vehicles in use would need a “driver” with an “autonomous motor vehicle operation designation” on his or her driver’s license awarded by DPS. The bill would also allow the Texas Department of Transportation to work with private firms to test autonomous technology for freight transport.

[…]

Along with Ellis’ bill, two House lawmakers have filed legislation dealing with self-driving vehicles. State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, filed House Bill 933, a measure similar to Ellis’ bill that would also allow DPS to explore using autonomous vehicles for border security. House Bill 3690 from state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, would allow TxDOT to explore using autonomous vehicles for construction and maintenance work.

Aside from bills filed this session to encourage research in self-driving cars, TxDOT is also requesting extra funding to partner with Texas universities and study emerging transportation technology. Last year, the agency had announced plans to request $50 million for the initiative but later reduced that to $20 million.

House budget writers didn’t fund the request but added it to a lengthy legislative wish list.

“This session, members are calling for more funding for roads to address the mobility issues plaguing our state, so that is where the Appropriations Committee prioritized funding for TxDOT,” House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said. He added that the full House would have the chance to weigh in on TxDOT’s request when the budget reaches the House floor for debate just before Easter.

The Senate Finance Committee, where the Senate version of the budget is being written, has not made a decision on TxDOT’s $20 million request.

See here for more on TxDOT’s request. There was one bill filed last session dealing with driverless cars, but it never go a committee hearing. We’ll see if there’a any further action this time.

Is this the end of the two-car household?

From Streetsblog:

While predicting continued global growth in car sales as countries like India and China become more affluent, KPMG’s recent white paper about trends affecting the car industry [PDF] sees different forces at work in the United States.

In the U.S., says KPMG, car sharing companies like Zipcar, on-demand car services like Uber, and even bike-share will eat away at the percentage of households owning multiple vehicles, especially in major cities. Today, 57 percent of American households have two or more vehicles. KPMG’s Gary Silberg told CNBC that the share of two-car households could decrease to 43 percent by 2040.

In this scenario, KPMG predicts that the rise of “mobility services” will displace car ownership by providing similar mobility but without the fixed costs. The typical new car now costs $31,000 but sits idle 95 percent of the time. Given other options, Silberg told CNBC, many Americans will be happy to avoid that burden.

Other contributing factors flagged by KPMG include increasing urbanization, telecommuting, changing travel preferences among younger generations, and growing traffic congestion in big metro areas.

I’m a little surprised that driverless cars aren’t mentioned here, since that observation about vehicle idle time and its implications for vehicle and ride sharing is a common feature of stories about driverless cars. Make of that what you will.

The Highwayman, who shared that Streetsblog link, looks at this from the local angle.

Some of the services mentioned are already up and running in Houston, and expanding their footprint rapidly. ZipCar is downtown and spreading to other areas, and Uber has stuck around as Houston enacted new laws governing paid rides. In fact, after sort of anchoring its operations within Loop 610, Uber has expanded its footprint (the Uberprint? Ubersphere?) to suburban communities. Wednesday morning, Uber vehicles were available in Katy, Cypress and Tomball (I would have looked at more suburbs, but I got scared they were tracking me and closed the app and considered burning my smartphone).

Still, a lot of Houston isn’t exactly built for just walking down the block and grabbing a ZipCar or hoping an Uber is nearby. Huge swaths of the region are residential, and workers can commute for miles. Many two-income families might hang onto cars. It’s more likely that those living closer in will be less inclined to maintain a two-car household. In the suburbs, not exactly ripe for ridesharing, the change might be in households going from four vehicles to two rather than from two to one.

One possible implication of this KPMG report is that it may lead to greater demand for housing that is closer to employment, retail, and entertainment centers, which today would mean more urban-centric housing, though going forward this may include a good chunk of the more mature suburban areas, as many of them are trying to create urban-like centers within them. I’ve made this point myself in talking about the possible benefits of services like Uber. One reason why far-flung suburban development has been popular is because the cheaper housing more than offsets the larger expenditures needed on transportation. The greater the potential savings on transportation costs, the more attractive closer-in living will be. There are a ton of variables here, so making anything but the vaguest of predictions is dicey business, but this is something to keep in mind. Cities like Houston that are concerned about losing population (and with it political power) to their surrounding suburbs ought to see about doing what they can to facilitate transportation alternatives that allow people to get away from the one-car-per-adult model for living.

TxDOT to spur research on driverless cars

Among other things.

The state could fund research into self-driving cars, jet packs and hover cars if a new proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation is funded.

In a presentation Thursday to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said the agency plans to begin working with universities around the state to explore and test “emerging transportation technologies.” He said the initiative would make the state’s transportation system more efficient and better prepared for transformative technologies that are already in development such as Google’s driverless car.

“The disruptive force of the Google car is a dominant issue we have to be aware of,” Barton said.

Along with self-driving cars, Barton also suggested that TxDOT might test out jet packs, hover cars and drones. He also touted the idea of “solar panel roadways,” in which solar panels would be embedded in roads, generating energy and melting snow and ice.

“These are the technologies that we know are real and are coming upon us quickly,” Barton said.

Barton said the project would involve launching “test beds” to try out futuristic concepts and determine how to implement them. It would also use “think tanks” to draw “the brightest minds across the globe” to explore challenges facing the state’s transportation system and to make recommendations to TxDOT and state lawmakers.

TxDOT plans to request $50 million from lawmakers during next year’s legislative session to fund the initiative for two years. The proposal will come on top of the agency’s biennial budget request of $20 billion, which agency officials have said is as much as $5 billion short of what is needed to maintain current congestion around the state as population grows.

“We’re asking them to fund the program for us,” Barton said. “If they choose not to, we may continue to move forward trying to find other funding strategies.”

That’s…surprisingly cool, especially coming from an inside-the-box organization like TxDOT. It should be noted that technology of tomorrow like driverless cars could help ameliorate TxDOT’s long-term budget shortfall, though probably not soon enough to make a difference. There was a bill to enable the use of driverless cars in Texas filed in the last Legislature. I’m sure that will come up again next year, perhaps a bit earlier in the session this time. I’m glad to see TxDOT take a leadership role in this. Perhaps now we can finally get those flying cars we were promised so many years ago.

More on the partisan lines of the Uber fight

From Wonkblog, another interesting look at how the fight over the so-called “sharing economy”, in particular transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, is playing out nationally.

In its short life, however, the sharing economy has seldom reflected a clear schism between Republicans and Democrats — an argument Grover Norquist tries to make today in a provocative opinion piece for Reuters. Companies like Uber, he writes with Patrick Gleason, can help the GOP “gain control” of cities where they’ve been all but absent for years. Their logic:

Yet despite the Democrats’ urban dominance, cities may soon be up for grabs. For the party’s refusal to embrace the innovative technology and disruptive businesses that have greatly improved city life presents a challenge to Democrats — and an opportunity for Republicans.

Democrats are facing a tough choice. A big part of their base is the unions now facing off against such disruptive innovations as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and charter schools. Do Democrats support the regulations pushed by taxi and other unions that help to protect the status quo but can also stifle competition? Or do they embrace innovative technologies and businesses that expand transportation options, create jobs and are increasingly welcomed by another key Democratic constituency: urban dwellers, particularly young urban dwellers?

Norquist and Gleason are right that there will no doubt be political fallout from the sharing economy. I recently met a number of cab drivers in Chicago who pledged to me that they would fight against the reelection of Mayor Rahm Emanuel because of his support for services like Uber and Lyft there. But it’s not at all clear that this fallout will favor Republicans.

[…]

The point here isn’t that Democrats are all supporters of the sharing economy. It’s that support isn’t as contingent on ideology as Norquist and Gleason suggest. And the political lines are definitely not so tidy as to suggest that Republicans can leverage liberals’ “refusal to embrace the innovative technology” to sweep back into favor with urban voters. There’s room here for Democrats to acknowledge that markets can partly regulate themselves — with the help of technology — in ways that weren’t possible in the past; there’s room for Republicans to acknowledge that we need laws mandating commercial auto insurance anyway.

We’ve heard a lot from Democrats on these issues precisely because they’re playing out in cities so far. And, inevitably, elected Democrats like Rahm Emanuel will be forced to take positions that will please some core constituents at the expense of others. The tension between unions and young consumers is particularly compelling. Republicans should absolutely jump into that fray. They haven’t found a lot of reasons to talk to urban voters lately — if people like Norquist think this is one, that’s great.

But the fact that this debate isn’t neatly drawn into liberal and conservative camps is a testament to the policy issues raised by the sharing economy: They’re incredibly, incredibly messy. They also aren’t purely about big-picture ideological battles over less regulation or more union power, the kind of divisive themes that animate federal policy debates. They’re about the gritty details of auto insurance policies and tax receipts and access for disabled consumers. That’s not the stuff of pithy partisan slogans.

As author Emily Badger notes, this issue has not played out along partisan lines so far. Uber and Lyft have made their way into cities like San Francisco and Seattle working with the local governments there. Trying to make this into an R-versus-D fight will surely be a loser at least in the short term precisely because cities are overwhelmingly Democratic right now. Uber and Lyft can’t get approved in Houston without at least two Democrats supporting it, and indeed can’t even come up for a vote without Mayor Parker putting it on the agenda.

Of course, Norquist is playing a long game, and a few losses up front aren’t a setback to him but a catalyst. I still have a hard time buying this as a wedge issue. Norquist envisions a future army of disillusioned Uber (and Lyft and AirBnB and whatever other sharing economy companies are out there trying to gain a foothold) users turning to his brand of small-government deregulators as the saviors of their smartphone apps. But most people who live in cities like having a certain level of service and infrastructure, and they accept that there’s a higher level of taxes to provide for that. It’s not exactly a coincidence that cities tend to be Democratic, after all. If what you really want is lower taxes and you don’t care so much for things like sewer systems and professional fire departments, well, that’s what the suburbs and unincorporated areas are for. It’s not like these are hard to find or move to in most metro areas.

Again, though, this is a long game. Norquist is hoping to bring younger people – those who are way more likely to be Uber users in the first place – to a more generalized preference of deregulation and less government. I like to think that the millennial crowd already has a clear view of what he’s trying to sell them, but let’s all admit that predicting what politics will look like in 20 or 30 years is considerably sillier than trying to predict what it will look like in 2 or 3 years, or even 2 or 3 months. One reason for that is because nobody knows what society will look like in 20 or 30 years. Uber thinks driverless cars will eventually replace their human chauffeurs. Some other people think driverless cars will be the end of Uber and its ilk. Who knows? Maybe society won’t accept driverless cars and unions like SEIU make a push to organize Uber drivers. Anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen.

Driverless car bill filed

Glad to see it.

Two weeks after Google showcased its self-driving car to local officials in Austin, a Texas lawmaker has filed a bill attempting to regulate the use of the futuristic technology.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, filed HB 2932 on Thursday to define “autonomous motor vehicle” and “autonomous technology” in the state’s transportation code. The bill would require that a licensed driver be held responsible for such a vehicle when it is in use, even if the car is operating without the driver inside it. It also directs the Texas Department of Transportation to set up rules for the use of such vehicles in the state, including minimum insurance requirements. Nevada approved similar laws last year, though that state requires a person in the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat of a self-driving car while it is in use.

Google demonstrated its self-driving car last month at the Texas Transportation Forum, a conference hosted by TxDOT. Company officials told The Texas Tribune they didn’t solicit permission or clearance from any state agencies before testing the car on public highways and streets in Texas because the state’s laws only refer to cars operated by drivers. The company drove the car in autopilot mode through parts of Texas to get it to the conference in Austin. Google employees then offered demonstrations of the car’s self-driving technology on I-35 to local and state officials.

See here for some background. I think Rep. Capriglione has the right approach here in not requiring someone to be in the car while it’s in operation. Letting truly driverless cars be on the streets is a requirement for enabling car-sharing and other innovative and potentially congestion-reducing uses for these vehicles. If nothing else, a nice thing about a driverless car is that you can basically valet park yourself anytime you want. Drop yourself off and let the car go find someplace to wait for you to call it back, like the Batmobile. But that only works if you don’t have to be in the car at the time. Under this bill, that’s a possibility.