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Autonomous Vehicles Will Change Urban Areas

June 26, 2017 Featured, Transportation No Comments
Volvo S60 with pedestrian detection at the Chicago Auto Show

The auto industry is quickly moving toward full self0-driving cars. The impact on cities, including St. Louis, could be huge. You might be thinking it is a decade or more away, but earlier this month GM announced a a major accompaniment.

General Motors said Tuesday it has finished making 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles, an achievement that the automaker says will help put it at the forefront of the race to develop and deploy autonomous cars.

CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said GM is the only automaker currently capable of mass-producing self-driving vehicles. (USA Today)

Other automakers. and tech giants like Alphabet (Google), Apple, etc are all racing to be first and/or the best.  Honda, for example, outlined its timeline earlier this month:

Honda has been one of the more cautious automakers when it comes to self-driving cars, and a recent study put the company at 15th out of 18 in terms of overall advancement. At a media event this week, however, Honda shared more about its plans and set a target of 2025 for introducing vehicles with Level 4 autonomous driving capability. 

Honda has already said that it intends to have vehicles capable of Level 3 freeway driving on the market by 2020, and is reiterating that goal today. Level 3, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, refers to highly automated driving where the driver still needs to be able to take over the vehicle upon request. Level 4 automation means that the car is capable of handing most driving situations itself, whereas Level 5 is largely theoretical and covers complete automation in any condition. (The Verge)

Level 4?  We’re not going to go from fully human-controlled cars to full self-driving overnight.

  • Level 0: This one is pretty basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power. It’s what you’ve been doing all along.
  • Level 1: This driver-assistance level means that most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car.
  • Level 2: In level 2, at least one driver assistance system of “both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment” is automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. It means that the “driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time,” according to the SAE. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however. 
  • Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for the previous levels. Jim McBride, autonomous vehicles expert at Ford, said this is “the biggest demarcation is between Levels 3 and 4.” He’s focused on getting Ford straight to Level 4, since Level 3, which involves transferring control from car to human, can often pose difficulties. “We’re not going to ask the driver to instantaneously intervene—that’s not a fair proposition,” McBride said.
  • Level 4: This is what is meant by “fully autonomous.” Level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” However, it’s important to note that this is limited to the “operational design domain (ODD)” of the vehicle—meaning it does not cover every driving scenario.
  • Level 5: This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle’s performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future. (Tech Republic)

A study released in April says Ford is leading others in the race to produce autonomous vehicles.

When will this happen? From May:

When will I be able to buy an autonomous car?
That’s not an easy question to answer because it’s not yet clear how the technology will come to market. It’s likely that most automakers will be able to build Level 4 autonomous vehicles by 2021 or so, if not before — but the first Level 4 vehicles may be very expensive, and they may be offered only to fleet customers (like Uber or Lyft).

That said, it’s likely that one or more automakers (Tesla, perhaps others) will offer Level 4 technology to retail customers at some point in the next few years. But no automaker (or software company) has announced a firm date yet. (Motley Fool)

Many, including automakers, expect a shift from owning a car to using a ride share service. The coming changes will be massive, below are some thoughts from 50 Mind-Blowing Implications of Self-Driving Cars (and Trucks):

  • 1) People won’t own their own cars. Transport will delivered as a service from companies who own fleets of self-driving vehicles. There are so many technical, economic, safety advantages to the transportation-as-a-service that this change may come much faster than most people expect
  • 6) There won’t be any parking lots or parking spaces on roads or in buildings. Garages will be repurposed?—?maybe as mini loading docks for people and deliveries. Aesthetics of homes and commercial buildings will change as parking lots and spaces go away
  • 24) Cities will become much more dense as fewer roads and vehicles will be needed and transport will be cheaper and more available. The “walkable city” will continue to be more desirable as walking and biking become easier and more commonplace.
  • 29) Cities, towns and police forces will lose revenue from traffic tickets, tolls (likely replaced, if not eliminated) and fuel tax revenues drop precipitously. These will probably be replaced by new taxes (probably on vehicle miles). These may become a major political hot-button issue differentiating parties as there will probably be a range of regressive versus progressive tax models
  • 40) Many roads and bridges will be privatized as a small number of companies control most transport and make deals with municipalities. Over time, government may entirely stop funding roads, bridges and tunnels.
  • 41) Innovators will come along with many awesome uses for driveways and garages that no longer contain cars. There will be a new network of clean, safe, pay-to-use restrooms that become part of the value-add of competing service providers.

What does all this potentially mean for St. Louis? Fewer privately owned cars means on-street parking and parking garages will have increasing vacancy. Less revenue from meters and parking tickets. Privately-ownewd garages will no longer be profitable — unless leased to a fleet operator. Enterprise already owns the garage attached to Mansion House, Gentry’s Landing, and hotel.

Some jobs will see less demand and eventually go away. Parking enforcement, for example. There will be less demand for gasoline but an increased demand to infill more densely. Will the city have the funds to narrow roads, improve infrastructure to work with autonomous cars? Maybe, new residents might add enough to the tax base. Will St. Louis be one of many municipalities in St. Louis County by then or even be a big consolidated government?

Car dealerships, new & used, will begin to disappear. New houses, condos, etc won’t have garages as we know them. Existing garages may be converted into additional living space, perhaps a mother-in-law suite.    Oil change, tire shops, and auto repair will also see reduced demand until finally disappearing. Yes, autonomous vehicles will need tires but the fleet companies won’t run to the corner tire shop.

There are many more positive and negative implications of the transition to autonomous vehicles. The important thing to remember is it won’t happen overnight — but it’ll likely happen faster than many expect.

— Steve Patterson



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