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Five Years to Autonomous?

By Jack Roberts, Senior Editor -
Posted Feb 14th 2017 4:03PM

Earlier this week, the Governors' Highway Safety Association presented a webinar on emerging autonomous vehicle technology. The purpose of the event was two-fold: To raise awareness of the fast pace with which autonomous vehicle technology is moving and highlight the need, on the state level, to prepare for the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles in terms of policy, legislation, and law enforcement.

Dr. James Hedlund is the primary consultant working with GHSA on autonomous vehicles and I followed up with him after the webinar to expand on some of the themes that were discussed.

Hedlund knows his stuff: He is principal, Highway Safety North, Ithaca, N.Y. He spent 22 years at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in various research and management positions, most recently as associate administrator for Traffic Safety Programs. From 2011 to 2015, he served as a consultant on management and data analysis for the SHRP 2 naturalistic driving study of the National Academy of Sciences. He has published over 60 research studies, conference summaries, research syntheses, and guides on a variety of behavioral traffic safety subjects.

Our discussion touched on several relevant points, including Hedlund's feeling that commercial vehicles will be the driving force in autonomous vehicle adoption nationwide and the fact that this "disruptive technology," as he called it, has the potential to transform our society in ways we understand very little at the moment.

Jack Roberts: Give me some background on GHSA; its mission and goals.

Jim Hedlund: GHSA is the national organization representing the highway safety offices present in each state. These offices receive federal money from the United States Department of Transportation to use on traffic safety activities. The organization seeks to help members coordinate those efforts on a national level.

Roberts: You've said you feel the push to bring autonomous vehicles to market will come from the commercial vehicle side of the automotive world, instead of passenger cars. Why is that?

Hedlund: There's a real need for this technology on the commercial side today. In the passenger car market, autonomous vehicles are more of a luxury item. But truck fleets are under great pressure to move materials quickly and efficiently. Autonomous technology can help them do that in a somewhat more controlled manner. Also, in an industry plagued with liability issues, autonomous technology can help them run safer.

Roberts: Do you feel like autonomous vehicles are inevitable?

Hedlund: Yes, I do. If you survey motorists, most of them really like the idea of a vehicle that drives itself. They love the idea of being able to switch in and out of autonomous and active driving roles, particularly in traffic or on boring stretches of road. They also understand there are inherent safety benefits to the technology. So I think we'll start to see early adaptors start to work with autonomous vehicles – probably within the next five years. That can be hard for some people today to deal with. Henry Ford once noted that if he'd listened to the people around him when he was working on his first automobile, he would've heard that they wanted faster horses. Then they got automobiles, liked them, and the rest is history. More recently, we saw the same sort of thing with smartphones: 20 years ago, no one knew what they were. Now, virtually everybody has one. So I think autonomous technology will follow a similar path to acceptance.

Roberts: I have a sense the technology is actually moving faster than our legislative efforts to deal with it. Is that correct?

Hedlund: Yes. It's always complicated when our society and laws have to adapt to new technology and this is no different. I think the real legislative crunch will come when we get to Level 3 and Level 4 autonomous vehicles, where there is a high degree of automation, but a driver still has to be engaged in how that car or truck is operating. Because the technology won't be able to operate in some locations, and when, where, and how drivers will take over will have to be worked out. We don't know, for example, how law officers will be able to flag down and stop a vehicle in autonomous mode. So, the technology is moving very quickly – much faster than the regulatory and legislative efforts – and we need to be really flexible on this front. We don't need to be taking five years to pass laws based on concepts and technology that was cutting edge 10 years ago.

Roberts: You call autonomous technology a "disruptive technology." Why is that?

Hedlund: Mainly in the sense that it is going to change our lives. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are obvious benefits: Your grandmother can't drive anymore – but you won't have to go over and pick her up and take her places all the time. It may affect travel patterns and change where people live. We may see cities spread to far-out suburbs since commuters will be able to treat their cars like a passenger train: Go into autonomous mode and go to work or read a newspaper, for example. I'm not an economist but it's also obvious that this technology will have a disruptive effect on how people work and what those jobs will be. It will be a lot like the autonomous revolution in manufacturing, which allows companies to manufacture far more goods, cheaper, using less labor.

Roberts: There is a lot of discussion about autonomous technology today. But are we missing something in all the discussions?

Hedlund: Well, the GHSA wanted this review that I completed because they feel safety is not being addressed as much as it should. All the attention at the moment seems to be on the technology and how it works, rather how these vehicles will interact with the real world. How will they behave around manually driven cars, pedestrians, or law enforcement, as I mentioned? So that's GHSA's focus at the moment. We want to make sure state DOTs and law enforcement agencies around the country are thinking about these issues and working on them now, because – as I said – my sense is that this technology will appear on our roads much sooner than many people think today.

To see Hedlund's GHSA report, click here.


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