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driverless cars

DART to study driverless buses

We’ll see what this means in practice.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with “full-sized, full-speed buses” to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

This feels more like pie in the sky noodling than a practical roadmap, but whatever. There’s value in looking for current applications of existing technology, and seeing where that can take you. I lean towards that timeline for testing being overly optimistic, but we’ll see. Ask me again in 2021 or so.

The driverless shuttle at TSU is ready to roll

I spotted this on Twitter earlier this week.

You may have heard the term autonomous vehicles. These are vehicles that can guide themselves down the road on their own. This technology is being adapted for public transportation. A 2017 statute approved the operation of autonomous vehicles on Texas roads.

METRO has partnered with Texas Southern University for a pilot program in which an autonomous vehicle will operate on a 1-mile, closed loop route along TSU’s Tiger Walk beginning Wednesday, June 5.

To ensure customer safety, an attendant will be on board the shuttle during this pilot program but will not actually be operating it.

The all-electric vehicle seats 6 people, with standing room for 6 others and will operate on weekdays only during these times:

• 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
• 5 – 8:00 p.m.

How to Ride
The vehicle is intended for usage by TSU students, faculty, staff and campus guests. Rides are free, with riders required to show a current TSU ID or valid METRO Q® Fare Card.

All riders must be 18 years of age or older. All mobility devices (including wheelchairs) and service animals are welcome. But please note: the vehicle doesn’t have wheelchair securements.

See here and here for the background. According to a subsequent press release I received, there will be a ribbon-cutting at the Leonard H.O. Spearman Technology Building at 2 PM, if you want to be there. This is later than originally promised, but better late than never. I can’t be there for the grand opening, so I need to take a day off from work later on and make my way over to TSU so I can try this thing for myself. I’ll report back when I do.

UPDATE: This event has been postponed due to the weather. No word yet on when the makeup date will be.

The timeline for driverless cars

We know they’re coming, but how long it takes them to get here really matters.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. At an investor day event last month focused on Tesla’s autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted that his company would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware “at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” That means Level 5 autonomy, per the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It’s a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 2015 he predicted that Teslas would have “complete autonomy” by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by 2017, a feat that still hasn’t happened. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Teslas in about two years. The future is now, but napping in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle remains extremely dangerous.

In the past, Musk’s bold predictions have been met with A-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. People have less patience for PR campaigns masquerading as engineering timelines. “That’s bullshit,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. “At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years.”

What’s changed? Self-driving cars—and their associated building blocks such as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR—continue to improve, but executives other than Musk have been admitting that reports of their impending deployment were greatly exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said last month that the industry had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, once hoped that his son wouldn’t need a driver’s license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads “over the next 30 to 50 years.” That’s nearly as long as it took computers to evolve from IBM’s first mainframe to Apple’s first iPhone.

I touched on this recently in the context of ridesharing companies and their existential future, which is based in part on self-driving technology. I’ll say again, the prospect of driverless cars has an effect on current policy debates. If you believe they will be in common usage in the next five to ten years, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will begin having a significant effect on driving habits and traffic patterns in the short term. In particular, this argues for a change in approach to how we invest in infrastructure and mass transit. As that link suggests, why spend on rail projects when you can build souped up HOV lanes that will accommodate autonomous buses that travel at 80 to 100 MPH?

But if we’re on a thirty to fifty year horizon, then basically nothing has changed and we should proceed as if driverless cars are no more a part of the landscape than the flying cars we were once promised. Fifty years is forever in infrastructure terms. Hell, thirty years is a very long time. All but six MLB stadia are thirty years old or less, and many of the new stadia replaced other facilities that were between 30 and 40 years old. I’ve lived in Houston for 31 years, and every single highway in this town has been substantially rebuilt during that time frame, some more than once. The same argument about whether or not to invest in light rail should apply to the planned mammoth rebuild of I-45, which last I checked isn’t geared towards high-speed robot buses. I say nothing is worth delaying or deferring for a possible future with a timeline that may be measured in decades. I guarantee this issue will come up when the Metro referendum is officially put on the ballot. I’m happy to discuss how we should integrate autonomous vehicles into our traffic and transit planning, but let’s keep this in mind.

How secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.

Here comes the Kroger driverless grocery delivery car

Who wants to order some groceries, in certain selected ZIP codes?

Kroger, the nation’s largest grocer, has launched a self-driving grocery delivery service in Houston, the latest salvo in a hyper-competitive grocery market that has supermarket chains investing heavily in new technology to win over online shoppers.

Company officials on Tuesday showcased the first of dozens of autonomous delivery vehicles planned for Houston: Toyota Priuses outfitted with cameras, sensors and self-driving computer software. Shoppers at Kroger’s Meyerland store who live in ZIP codes 77401 and 77096 can order groceries through the company’s website and have their purchases pull up in a self-driven Prius. The Cincinnati-based grocer plans to bring the autonomous delivery service to its Buffalo Speedway store later this year, with plans to ultimately expand the program citywide.

“We are creating a seamless shopping experience for our customers so they can get anything, anytime and anywhere,” said Marlene Stewart, Kroger’s Houston division president.

[…]

In January 2018, Kroger partnered with Nuro, a Mountain View, Calif.-based self-driving delivery startup, to develop a grocery delivery service. Nuro, founded in 2016 by a pair of Google veterans, has raised $1 billion from investors, including Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners and Japanese holding conglomerate SoftBank, to make autonomous vehicle deliveries affordable for the mass consumer.

“We believe this technology isn’t just for an elite group of people, but for everybody,” said Dan Mitchell, Nuro’s head of product operations and community engagement.

The Kroger-Nuro partnership launched a pilot program in Scottsdale, Ariz., in August. Over the next seven months, the companies made more than 2,000 deliveries to customers living in one ZIP code around a Fry’s Market, a Kroger subsidiary. Mitchell said the autonomous vehicles were well-received in Arizona, with shoppers reveling in novelty of self-driving cars by taking photos and sharing them on social media.

Deliveries cost $5.95, which is less expensive than Kroger’s $11.95 delivery service through Shipt, whose human couriers bring groceries to the door. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message.

Nuro’s autonomous vehicles will have a safety operator at the driver’s seat who can take control in case of emergencies, as well as a co-pilot monitoring the technology. The vehicles had no accidents during its Arizona pilot program, Mitchell said.

Quincy Allen, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, said governmental agencies will closely watch Kroger’s autonomous delivery program as it expands.

“Safety remains our top priority, and we expect Kroger and Nuro to meet our safety standards,” Allen said.

See here for the background. I presume one reason for the difference in price is that the human couriers will carry the groceries to you, while with the autonomous car you have to schlep them yourself. I’d be interested to see if there’s a sufficient market for both options going forward. Those of you in ZIP codes 77005 and 77025 who order from the Kroger at 5150 Buffalo Speedway will get the chance to try this in a few months. Do you get groceries delivered, and if so do you find this appealing? Leave a comment and let us know.

Here come the driverless trucks

Coming soon to a freeway near you.

Self-driving 18-wheelers will soon cruise next to you down Interstate 10 and other major Texas freeways.

TuSimple, a California-based autonomous truck start-up, has been mapping routes and plans to haul commercial loads from Arizona to San Antonio, Houston and other Texas cities. The company will likely make a major announcement next month, Chief Product Officer Chuck Price told me.

Safety drivers will initially sit behind the wheel, but Price hopes to take them out by the end of next year. The age of autonomy has arrived.

“We’re probably going to spend $1 billion to make this happen, and we have investors that are committed to deliver the funds over time,” he said before showing off his technology at the recent SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin.

Price’s confidence comes in stark contrast to most of the news about self-driving technology over the past year. Uber, Waymo and independent analysts have adopted a more pessimistic tone about how soon autonomous passenger cars will hit the road.

The trucking business, though, is different. Companies dispatch thousands of loads a day along the same fixed routes, from one distribution center to another. Big trucks spend most of their time on the highway, not negotiating tight urban intersections. That makes training the algorithms easier.

Most importantly, the trucking industry is motivated. The age of the average driver keeps rising and finding new ones willing to spend lonely nights on the road is difficult.

[…]

The company plans to grow its fleet to 50 trucks by June to test its software.

“By the time we get to the end of 2020, we’re going to have tens of millions of miles that are proving the system out on fixed runs from Arizona all the way down to Houston,” Price said.

Here’s a couple of stories about the company, which I’d not heard of before. I actually think they’ll be fine for the most part on the freeways – they better be, that’s for sure – but color me skeptical about how these things will handle once they’re on city streets. You can take the company’s optimism however you like, I think those safety drivers will be necessary for longer than they think they will. And now that I know these trucks exist, I’ll be on the lookout for them while I’m driving on I-10.

Driverless car pilot ends in Frisco

I’d love to know what we learned from this.

For about eight months, a fleet of bright orange self-driving vans have been rolling around Frisco. The autonomous vehicles — and the pilot run by Silicon Valley-based Drive.ai — will be permanently parked on Friday.

The city of Frisco announced today that the autonomous vehicle pilot is ending. When it launched in late July, it became the first self-driving car service on public roads in Texas. The approximately 10,000 people who work in Hall Park, a large office campus in the suburb, could request a free ride in an app. The vans drove them a short distance to nearby shops and restaurants.

Nearly 5,000 unique riders used the service during the pilot program, according to the city of Frisco.

Drive.ai continues to operate another autonomous vehicle pilot in Arlington. The free service, which is available Monday to Friday, is open to the public and available in the city’s entertainment district.

Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney did not say why the city decided to end the service rather than expand it. The city is encouraging current riders “to explore and utilize other modes of transportation after the conclusion of the pilot program,” he said in a prepared statement.

See here and here for the background. Do we have any idea how many riders per day used this service? Five thousand “unique” riders sounds decent, but not if 4,900 of them only ever used the service once. There’s a lot of talk about driverless cars as an enhancement or competitor to mass transit. Well, transit is measured in ridership, so let’s hear how Drive.ai did on that score. There are also numerous similar pilots coming, in Texas and elsewhere. They sound great, but until we see some data we can’t begin to evaluate their potential. I sure hope Frisco and Arlington give us the goods.

Driverless grocery deliveries

Coming soon to Houston.

Some local shoppers soon could see their produce pull up in a Prius in one of the first forays into autonomous vehicles in the Houston area, a move observers said is sure to spur more robot deliveries in the region.

Following its launch in suburban Phoenix, California-based robotics company Nuro will debut automated deliveries at Kroger supermarkets on Buffalo Speedway and South Post Oak, with each store serving two zip codes. Officials did not specify an exact date for deliveries to start, only that the vehicles are in place and operation will start before summer.

“We want to learn as much as possible when we are out there,” said Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.

The zip codes covered will be 77401 and 77096 at the South Post Oak store, and 77005 and 77025 from the Buffalo Speedway location.

Deliveries will cost a flat fee of $5.95 regardless of delivery size or value, said Matt Thompson, vice president of digital business for Kroger. In Phoenix, delivery is to one zip code around a Fry’s market, a Kroger subsidiary.

“We are really encouraged about the repeat rate we are seeing from the Phoenix area,” Thompson said.

[…]

As Nuro did in Phoenix, deliveries will begin using converted Toyota Prius sedans. Customers will order their groceries online via Kroger and choose delivery instead of pickup. The store, working with Nuro, will load the vehicle and notify the buyer the delivery is on its way. Dispatchers hired by Nuro will monitor the trip from an office in Houston.

Eventually, the sedans will be replaced by Nuro’s own all-electric vehicle, the R1, which is built especially for deliveries. The vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph, is capable of holding six grocery bags in a compartment, with two compartments per vehicle. The company is working on a second generation vehicle capable of holding ten full grocery bags in each compartment, with refrigeration built into the electric vehicle.

As the story notes, using autonomous cars for deliveries rather than for transporting passengers might be an easier path to optimizing the service and getting widespread acceptance, since deliveries are less time-sensitive and the ride experience is irrelevant. This would be the first implementation of autonomous vehicles in Houston, as Metro’s planned TSU shuttle has been delayed. Multiple cities in Texas have been investigating or piloting autonomous cars since the Lege passed a law in 2017 allowing for it. At this point, there have been a lot of tests or announcements of tests, but I haven’t seen any reporting on how successful they’ve been as yet. We’ll see how this one goes. Would you use a service like this?

Driverless taxis have arrived

In Phoenix.

Google offshoot Waymo announced it is launching the nation’s first commercial driverless taxi service in this and other Phoenix suburbs. The 24/7 service, dubbed Waymo One, will let customers summon self-driving minivans by a smartphone app, a la Uber or Lyft.

Waymo’s move comes after nearly a decade of development, more than a billion dollars in investment and 10 million miles of testing on public roads. The project was embraced by top state and local officials even as questions have been raised here and elsewhere about the speed of the technology’s rollout.

“In Arizona, we still do enjoy a bit of wild, wild West mentality. We have this great desire to be exploring and conquering this frontier,” said Rob Antoniak, chief operating officer of Valley Metro, which helps oversee the metropolitan area’s 500-square-mile transit system and next year will begin paying some Waymo fares for the elderly and people with disabilities, as part of a pilot. “And we enjoy a regulatory environment that embraces that attitude.”

Waymo, part of Alphabet, is starting small, rolling out the service first to hundreds of the company’s local volunteer testers, and only in part of this sprawling region of almost 5 million people. But the move is a major – and potentially revealing – step in the tightly controlled and hype-filled realm of self-driving vehicles.

“It’s a big leap between testing this stuff and booking and transporting a passenger who’s paying money for a service,” said Costa Samaras, an automation and infrastructure expert at Carnegie Mellon University who worked as an engineer on a New York subway expansion early in his career. “This is real.”

Waymo will now be putting its technology through the public wringer, with cellphone-toting customers – freed from nondisclosure agreements – ready to capture and tweet every miscue, just as they might with a bad airline flight, Samaras said.

“The trajectory of the industry, not just at Waymo, is going to depend on a lot of these early experiences. Do people feel safe? Do people feel comfortable? Is it seamless?” Samaras said. “If it is, we’ll see more of it. If not, people will go back to the engineering room.”

[…]

There is significant public skepticism about self-driving cars, and polls find that most people don’t want to ride in them. Earlier this year, a driverless Uber SUV killed a pedestrian pushing a bike across a dark street in nearby Tempe. The emergency braking system had been shut off for driverless testing, and the backup driver did not start slowing down until after the vehicle struck Elaine Herzberg, 49. That safety driver had looked down more than 200 times and her smartphone was streaming NBC’s “The Voice” in the run-up to the deadly collision, according to investigators.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in March that his team’s vehicles “would be able to handle situations like that.”

We’ll see about that. I’m not ready to ride in one of those things on the real streets. A fixed-route shuttle in a low-traffic area, sure. Beyond that, I’ll let others do the beta testing. I’m not the only one who’s leery of this. How about you? TechCrunch has more.

Metro’s autonomous vehicle pilot to start in January

Here it comes, TSU.

Last spring, METRO announced a plan to run an autonomous bus along TSU’s Tiger Walk, a shared-use path that cuts across the campus. Now, the transit agency said it will start a pilot program in January.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said they’re curious to see how autonomous vehicles function on a small scale, as they look for new ways to move commuters through the growing region. He added that a college campus is a good testing ground.

“There’s a lot of pedestrian movement, cycling movement, golf cart movement,” Lambert said. “There’s a lot of things we can learn.”

In the second phase of the pilot, Lambert said they hope to run the bus on nearby Cleburne Street to see how it interacts with vehicular traffic.

See here for the background. Running this thing off campus once it has proven itself on campus is a logical thing to do, but I for one would want to make sure it is tested very thoroughly before I unleashed it in a less-controlled environment. That said, I do hope that the long range transit plan takes into account the potential future location of similar shuttles, to better extend the reach of the regular system. I may have to plan a little trip to TSU during the pilot phase to see how this goes.

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.