Tak­ing You Out of the Driver’s Seat

SELF-DRIV­ING CARS are about to trans­form our citiesand suburbs in ways we haven’t imag­ined

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - BY DAVID H. FREED­MAN

Self-driv­ing cars are about to trans­form our cities and suburbs in ways we haven’t imag­ined.

RRush hour in sin­ga­pore, a crowded is­land city of nearly 6 mil­lion peo­ple, is much like rush hour in al­most ev­ery ma­jor city in the world: a liv­ing hell of clogged high­ways and stressed-out drivers. The dilemma, if left alone, will only get worse if, as is ex­pected, Sin­ga­pore adds a mil­lion more res­i­dents in the next decade. But city plan­ners have no in­ten­tion of leav­ing it alone. They have in mind a so­lu­tion that is rad­i­cal and all-en­com­pass­ing: to re­place car own­er­ship with ride-shar­ing.

The key in­gre­di­ent in this plan is the emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles (Avs)—cars and shut­tle buses that, through the mir­a­cle of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, can drive them­selves with no hu­man at the wheel. Imag­ine re­plac­ing mo­lar-grind­ing rush­hour grid­lock with a chore­og­ra­phy of driver­less Ubers whisk­ing peo­ple to and from work.

To re­al­ize this fu­ture, Sin­ga­pore is mak­ing far­sighted in­vest­ments in re­search and in­fra­struc­ture and rewrit­ing its trans­porta­tion poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions. It built a sprawl­ing test track, com­plete with fake build­ings, steep hills and a rain ma­chine. It is work­ing with 10 dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies on plans to roll out fleets of driver­less cars.

The mu­nic­i­pal agency that keeps a tight reg­u­la­tory grip on cars and roads in Sin­ga­pore—it cur­rently charges com­muters nearly $15,000 a year for the priv­i­lege of own­ing a car and us­ing the roads dur­ing rush hour—re­cently re­moved the re­quire­ment that cars have hu­man drivers. All new res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ments must now abide by rules that both ac­com­mo­date self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles and dis­cour­age car own­er­ship: nar­row roads, spe­cial road mark­ings, gen­tler curves, spe­cific curb heights and fewer park­ing spa­ces.

The first driver­less buses and shut­tles hit the city’s streets in Novem­ber. If all goes well, a large fleet will soon be cruis­ing the roads, cal­cu­lat­ing their routes on the fly based on where they need to pick up pas­sen­gers and drop them off. Then a fleet of AVS will be de­ployed to work nights, sweep­ing the streets and de­liv­er­ing pack­ages. “The goal here,” says Niels de Boer, who heads au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle re­search for the En­ergy Re­search In­sti­tute at Sin­ga­pore’s Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, “is to make hav­ing your own car com­pletely un­nec­es­sary by 2030.”

At the dawn of the 20th cen­tury, the au­to­mo­bile was her­alded as a way to free cities from the scourge of horse ma­nure. Cars de­liv­ered on that prom­ise,

and they made us a far more mo­bile so­ci­ety. But they also stuck us with a slew of per­va­sive prob­lems that haunt us to­day: ur­ban blight, sub­ur­ban sprawl, con­ges­tion, a rich-poor di­vide, a health-crush­ing lack of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and enough pol­lu­tion to up­end the Earth’s cli­mate.

If Sin­ga­pore ex­em­pli­fies the prom­ise of driver­less cars to al­le­vi­ate the mis­takes of the past 100 years, most cities seem po­si­tioned to once again al­low tech­nol­ogy to over­whelm them. For in­stance, heav­ily con­gested New York City lacks Sin­ga­pore’s abil­ity to fo­cus on a trans­for­ma­tive vi­sion and fol­low through with reg­u­la­tory mus­cle. Only a few years ago, a bid to im­pose road tar­iffs on cars that en­ter its per­pet­u­ally traf­fic-clogged down­town failed. The Big Ap­ple cur­rently has no test­ing pro­gram in place for driver­less cars—gen­eral Mo­tors was plan­ning one for 2019 but can­celed it when the City Coun­cil raised con­cerns about safety. Some Euro­pean coun­tries and China are tak­ing steps to pre­pare for AVS, but not one ma­jor U.S. city has in­tro­duced new traf­fic or de­vel­op­ment laws in­tended to boost AVS or push drivers to use them, as Sin­ga­pore has.

If cities don’t get their de­vel­op­ment acts to­gether soon, driver­less ve­hi­cles will likely make traf­fic far worse in the com­ing years. As driver­less car ser­vices be­come more con­ve­nient and af­ford­able, they will lure more peo­ple onto the road. The ve­hi­cles them­selves will drive slowly and care­fully, wait­ing with in­fi­nite pa­tience for the car up ahead that is try­ing to par­al­lel park for the third time or the pedes­tri­ans who play chicken in the cross­walk. Drivers will swerve to avoid the lum­ber­ing ve­hi­cles and cut them off. Road rage will rise.

Just as Ama­zon rode roughshod over re­tail and Face­book and Google tor­pe­doed pub­lish­ing and the me­dia, driver­less cars could soon trans­form trans­porta­tion in ways we may or may not like. We could watch pas­sively as con­ges­tion, stag­na­tion and sprawl get worse. Or we could choose to in­vest in an Av-in­spired ren­o­va­tion of cities and suburbs, in­clud­ing a vast net­work of sen­sor-rich, high-speed smart road­ways.

The com­ing of self-driv­ing cars will push us in one of those two di­rec­tions, de­pend­ing on how pub-

“There’s no rea­son a driver­less car can’t travel at 120 MILES PER HOUR DOWN THE HIGH­WAY, be­cause their re­sponse time is so fast.”

lic and pri­vate forces or­ches­trate—or don’t—the in­te­gra­tion of AVS into our towns and cities.

‘Mas­sive De­ploy­ments’ in Two Years

what­ever we do, we need to do it quickly. A con­flu­ence of new tech­nol­ogy and new busi­ness mod­els has made AVS pos­si­ble and prac­ti­cal. Ad­vances in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence have pro­duced soft­ware that can rec­og­nize ev­ery road fea­ture and ob­ject, al­low­ing ve­hi­cles to smoothly and pre­cisely nav­i­gate through them. And the soft­ware learns, get­ting more adept at recog­ni­tion and con­trol with each mile driven.

Mean­while, the ad­vent of ride-hail­ing ser­vices like Uber and Lyft has paved the way for af­ford­able ac­cess to self-driv­ing cars. Most peo­ple won’t be able to spring for their own pri­vate AV, but ev­ery­one will be able to af­ford a ride in one. Pi­lot ver­sions of AV fleets have sprung up not just in techno-cen­tric, in­no­va­tion-em­brac­ing Amer­i­can cities like Bos­ton and San Fran­cisco but also in Dal­las,

Las Ve­gas, Detroit and Pitts­burgh, in part­ner­ship with a range of pi­o­neer­ing AV com­pa­nies with names like Trans­dev, Drive.ai and Navya. Colum­bus, Ohio, not nor­mally a hot­bed of pi­o­neer­ing high-tech de­vel­op­ment, has al­ready pulled to­gether $140 mil­lion to in­vest in driver­less fleets. It’s ex­pected that by the end of 2019, the num­ber of AVS in the United States will reach the tens of thou­sands, with hun­dreds of thou­sands ex­pected in the next few years.

Waymo, the self-driv­ing car com­pany owned by Google’s par­ent com­pany, Al­pha­bet, al­ready has 600 self-driv­ing vans in Phoenix and more in 24 other test cities. It re­cently be­came the first com­pany al­lowed to place AVS with no hu­man backup driver on Cal­i­for­nia’s roads. It took Waymo AVS six years to rack up their first mil­lion miles; they now have 10 mil­lion un­der their seat belts and are rolling up an­other mil­lion ev­ery month. The com­pany has 82,000 ad­di­tional self-driv­ing Chrysler Paci­fica–based mini­vans ready for de­ploy­ment the minute cities give them the green light, along with a com­ing fleet of 20,000 Jaguar self-driv­ing I-pace SUVS primed to run a mil­lion trips per day within two years.

Ford, GM, Volvo and BMW are all rac­ing to catch up, and so are the AV star­tups. Op­ti­mus Ride, one of the com­pa­nies run­ning pi­lot pro­grams in Bos­ton, won’t re­lease de­tails about pend­ing con­tracts and ap­provals, but CEO Ryan Chin claims the com­mit­ments are huge. “We’ve got a big pipe­line of agree­ments out­side of Mas­sachusetts we’re get­ting ready to ful­fill,” he says. “They’ll be mas­sive de­ploy­ments hap­pen­ing in two years.”

As those ser­vices are rolled out, the tech­nol­ogy will likely pick up mo­men­tum. It will bring busi­nesses closer to their cus­tomers by mak­ing goods and ser­vices more ac­ces­si­ble. Shops and restau­rants may choose to pro­vide cus­tomers with free driver­less trans­port; Wal­mart is pi­lot­ing a pro­gram in Chan­dler, Ari­zona, to bring cus­tomers to its store in Waymo robo­cars. Toy­ota plans to make driver­less vans that can be con­fig­ured into a mo­bile ver­sion of any busi­nesses—pizza Hut and Domino’s have al­ready struck deals with Toy­ota and Ford. Ride-shar­ing ser­vices them­selves could help busi­nesses cal­cu­late how best to serve their cus­tomers by pro­vid­ing data about where they go to spend their money.

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