What about driver­less cars?

Rappahannock News - - FROM PAGE ONE - — Randy Rieland

Last month, while ap­plaud­ing the progress and po­ten­tial of driver­less cars, Elaine Chao, the head of the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion her­self, pointed out that ru­ral Amer­ica shouldn’t be left be­hind when it comes to tak­ing ad­van­tage of the revo­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­ogy. “Not every­one lives down­town,” she said dur­ing a speech at the North Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Auto Show.

So, does that mean the so­lu­tion to trans­porta­tion chal­lenges fac­ing com­mu­ni­ties like Rap­pa­han­nock is on the way?

Not re­ally.

For all the prom­ise of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles (AV), they re­main a work in progress, and when they are ready to move beyond the test­ing phase, their first big roll­out will likely come in big cities. Think fleets of driver­less Uber cars in con­stant mo­tion, re­spond­ing to mo­bile app re­quests on down­town streets.

The state of Vir­ginia has tried to en­sure that it doesn’t miss the AV wave by des­ig­nat­ing Vir­ginia Au­to­mated Cor­ri­dors — roads open for au­ton­o­mous test drives. But these are ma­jor high­ways, such as I-66 and I-95, a long, long way from gravel roads through the woods.

AV tech­nol­ogy, in truth, faces some big hur­dles be­fore it’s ready to go ru­ral. Here are key ones:

➤ Ru­ral con­di­tions are a dif­fer­ent world. AVs rely heav­ily on li­dar sen­sors, which bounce laser beams off ob­jects to pre­cisely mea­sure their dis­tance and help iden­tify them. But the heavy lift­ing is done by the ma­chine’s ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, which teaches it­self how to dis­tin­guish dif­fer­ent ob­jects. It’s true that busy ur­ban streets, with their jum­bled flow of ve­hi­cles, bikes and pedes­tri­ans, pro­duce com­plex scenes for AVs to in­ter­pret. But it’s also true that’s where they are do­ing much of their learn­ing. Ru­ral en­vi­ron­ments, while seem­ingly sim­pler, bring their own learn­ing curves and lev­els of ran­dom­ness. Is that ob­ject on the road a branch, an an­i­mal or a pot­hole? How dan­ger­ous is it? Also, AV per­for­mance can be af­fected by the con­di­tion of the road. Ob­vi­ously, rut­ted, un­paved sur­faces are far from ideal.

➤ Cut­ting-edge wi-fi may be nec­es­sary. As much as it may seem a driver­less car is work­ing solo, it’s ac­tu­ally con­nected to a com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work that in­cludes road­side in­fra­struc­ture — such as signs and traf­fic lights — data cen­ters and other ve­hi­cles. That’s key to both its real-time aware­ness and how it learns new things over time. It’s widely be­lieved that peak per­for­mance will re­quire 5G wire­less net­works, the next gen­er­a­tion of high-speed, ul­tra-re­li­able wifi, which should be­gin rolling out in a lim­ited num­ber of U.S. cities later this year. It’s hard to imag­ine 5G wire­less in a place with the connectivi­ty is­sues of Rap­pa­han­nock any time soon. But there’s hope. Some ex­perts say that if tele­com com­pa­nies go into the busi­ness of pro­vid­ing stream­ing me­dia to AV pas­sen­gers, as ex­pected, they’ll be much more mo­ti­vated to up­grade connectivi­ty in ru­ral ar­eas.

➤ Power de­mands of AVs re­duce their range. When AV boost­ers wax rhap­sodic, they’ll of­ten talk about how driver­less cars will trans­form long com­mutes into more pro­duc­tive, rest­ful, even fun ex­pe­ri­ences. What they usu­ally don’t men­tion is that all the com­put­ing power burns a lot of en­ergy. By one es­ti­mate, it’s equiv­a­lent to hav­ing 50 to 100 lap­tops run­ning si­mul­ta­ne­ously. That could re­duce fuel ef­fi­ciency by as much as 10 per­cent, and since most AVs are likely to pow­ered by elec­tric­ity, it would shorten the dis­tance you could travel on a bat­tery charge. Not ex­actly an as­set in a com­mu­nity where a trip to the gro­cery store and back can eas­ily cover 50 miles.

Even­tu­ally, driver­less cars will be part of the Rap­pa­han­nock land­scape. But chances are they won’t be for at least an­other decade.


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