By Howard Spence
Rapid advances in technology and engineering are making big differences in our lives, and what the future holds for us. Many things that we used to dream about or see as ideas on television 20 or 30 years ago are now a part of our everyday reality. It is a wonder how we could ever have been happy living the way we did even just a few years ago.
One of the technology areas which is about to explode and make a significant change in both our lifestyles and culture within the next decade is the area of autonomous vehicles or self driving cars. And, by self-driving cars, I'm not talking about the type of vehicle that you and I used to ride in enclosed areas at county fairs, carnivals and amusement parks.
The Michigan State University Institute of Public Policy Studies and Research (IPPSR) held a discussion on February 15 in the Michigan House of Representatives office building. A panel of experts assembled to talk to a group of legislators, engineers, and citizens about changes, which are rapidly happening in the area of self-driving vehicles in Michigan. The presentations were eye opening, and made it obvious that the world of transportation is about to make significant changes.
This IPPSR program on self-driving vehicles was sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. Ford, along with a number of its competitors and collaborators in the automobile and vehicle transportation industry.
According to CNN Tech, Ford announced it would invest $1 billion over five years in a previously unheard of startup. Argo AI, led by Google and Uber veterans, will combine with Ford's existing team to develop a fully self-driving car.
The auto industry and its business partners have been investing a substantial amount of money in the development of technology, which may soon have many of us riding around in vehicles that will drive themselves to destinations that have been programmed to do so.
The vehicles will have artificial intelligence and engineering built right into them which will allow the car to actually "see the road" and people and vehicles on or near the road in 3-D just like human beings do. The vehicles will use visual sensing equipment and super sophisticated navigation systems to actually determine or see where the roads are, and what the vehicle must do to stay on the road in the correct lane headed toward a designated destination in a safe manner. This new technology is already in limited use in our communities in cars which are now being marketed to consumers with “self-parking” capabilities.
Whether you know it or not, if you have recently flown on a commercial airline, you have been exposed to a similar type of transportation automation technology. A large number of commercial jets are actually being flown almost entirely from takeoff to touch down by automated systems with almost no human intervention except in emergency situations. Just like large airliners, within the next 5 to 10 years there will be significant numbers of motorized vehicles on our roads which are driving along with human passengers inside while the vehicle itself is basically on "autopilot."
Ford and a number of other companies already have these vehicles designed and capable of operating – either on enclosed experimental roadways, or even actually in regular traffic on highways and streets along with human driven vehicles. The future and challenges of getting this technology fully developed is not only significant and important to the changes in our transportation, but this evolution in technology when refined and implemented will have great implications in terms of our state and country remaining competitive in manufacturing of automobiles and similar vehicles. We are in a world economy where other countries are also rushing to develop this technology to gain competitive advantages in the global marketplace.
Needless to say, another part of the urgency of developing this technology which is surely coming to wide spread consumer use eventually are critical implications or possibilities in the area of military activity or warfare. These autonomous vehicles can be used to maneuver into areas where it might not be safe for human drivers to go. Indeed, some of the technology being considered for introduction into civilian passenger car self-driving vehicles has been developed or is under further development by the U.S. military.
The price of the research and development to develop these self-driving vehicles is huge. Some companies which are actually normally competitors are finding it advantageous to collaborate or work together with each other to develop some technology which is just perhaps too complex or too expensive to develop independently. Collaboration between companies is also important and needed to develop a uniform or consistent technology so that all the self driving cars are operating on the same concepts and using the same artificial intelligence rules about what to do in certain situations.
Besides Ford, present at the IPPSR discussion were representatives and engineers and marketing specialists from Toyota, General Motors, Chrysler, and a number of engineering and consulting firms. Ford has indicated that they are committed to channeling over $1 billion towards developing the Ford self-driving vehicles. Ford intends to offer a self-driving vehicle in 2021. It will be built in Michigan at the Flat Rock plant.
The Ford vehicle being developed is completely self-driving, but does have a steering wheel and a brake system installed as a "backup" which in an emergency a human driver can utilize to overcome the artificial intelligence and robotics technology in an autonomous vehicle. The highest-level self driving vehicles under engineering development do not even have any way for human drivers to intervene, and the humans are pretty much just there for the ride – kind of like being “captured” on a roller coaster.
Because of the expense involved in the engineering and technology needed to make these vehicles work – especially during initial production in small numbers – it is likely that many of these vehicles will not be owned and operated exclusively by single or individual vehicle owners as is the case with conventional cars today. There is a good possibility that the first introduction of self-driving vehicles will be in mass transit vehicles, such as buses, or in vehicles that would justify the high cost of production. As with most technologies, as self-driving vehicles become widespread and the engineering is refined, the prices of the vehicles will likely drop significantly. In the future, self-driving vehicles may be able to park themselves in driveways and garages without the owners ever moving from the couch.
The presenters indicated that the vehicles being developed will have a 360° high-tech object sensing system. The vehicles will have some way to "see" the environment, some kind of brain-power or artificial intelligence to learn how to drive just like humans, and the ability to make a driving decision to know to stop or slow down in a way that would not interfere with other vehicles or objects that are also operating in the roadway. These self-driving vehicles will have much more than the simple or common navigation or GPS capabilities that we are aware of today in cars. There will be a extensive use of cameras and a type of radar based upon laser technology and sensing (also known as “Ladar”).
The potential for this new technology is tremendous. It also will make significant changes necessary in both our culture, laws and regulations. For example, can you imagine the implications for automobile insurance if self-driving vehicles are involved in an accident and there is not a human driver? A whole new perspective and body of law for how to figure out liability and compensation where accidents occur with self driving vehicles will have to be developed.
Also, many of the laws and regulations related to motor traffic and vehicle operation will have to change if the drivers are not exclusively humans. There are presently laws on the books which limit the age of drivers – both young and old – and establish other guidelines for safety such as the idea of spacing between vehicles and yielding to other vehicles and pedestrians. Perhaps younger people will be able to "operate" driverless vehicles, and maybe grandpa or grandma will not be homebound because their vision or physical reactions are slowed down by aging.
Some of that decision-making will be programmed into the artificial intelligence of the vehicle, but legislators will have to consider whether and how those laws and guidelines which are helpful to keep human drivers from colliding or acting in an unsafe ways need to be changed to reflect the fact that machines can more quickly make decisions and react to vehicle traffic situations than humans.
There are also consequences of technology moving forward for workers and human beings. If we have self driving cars, buses, and trucks out on the road, then the millions of people in our country who are involved in driving these vehicles now may find that their jobs are no longer needed, or that the skills required to do those jobs are downgraded to the point that they are not as attractive or pay as high wages. Because there is likely still the need for some way to intervene with human backup systems, you find that just as in commercial aviation, where many commercial jets could fly theoretically without a pilot at all, there needs to be a pilot and flight crew in that airliner for backup and safety purposes in case there is a need to take that vehicle out of "autopilot" status. And, there are also "cyber hacking" concerns that must be considered as evil people may interrupt the normal functioning of self-driving vehicles - even a type of "cyber jacking," maybe.
Another aspect of the implications for self driving vehicles on our roadways is that even the manufacturing of those vehicles will require some changes in technology which will make the manufacturing more robot intensive. There will be less of a need for human workers to become involved in the building and maintenance of those vehicles, and those humans in the new plants will need a higher skillset than current car manufacturing line employees.
There was also a representative from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). They are interested in this type of technology and innovation because it has great potential to reduce the number of fatalities and accidents on our streets and roads at some future time. The goal of the MDOT is to develop safe systems and roadways. That interest coincides with the interests of the manufacturers and engineers working hard now to introduce new self driving car technology. The goal of those building the vehicles of the future is to improve the quality of life and make it safer. They are concerned about getting people from point A to point B quickly and efficiently, with as few accidents as possible.
Printed in the April 2 - 15, 2017 edition.