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Fed Panel Asks Today: Why Waymo?

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 16, 2017

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is holding the first meeting today of a new advisory committee focused, in its own words: "on automation across a number of modes." The committee, made up of an array of experts from a variety of fields, is "to immediately begin work on some of the most pressing and relevant matters facing transportation today, including the development and deployment of automated vehicles, and determining the needs of the Department as it continues with its relevant research, policy, and regulations."

The big question facing the panel (members listed below) is: Why? Why are we pursuing automated driving?

It was the U.S. government that got us into the automated driving business with the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Challenge in 2004. The intent of the original project was to make one third of ground military forces autonomous by 2015. By the time of the multiple Gulf Wars the objective was to develop robotic vehicles that might help protect military personnel from roadside improvised explosive devices.

DARPA's efforts were preceded by decades of work around the world to perfect automated driving. DARPA was the first organization to identify a commercially viable use case - though we still do not have an automated battlefield.

Google picked up the mantle years later with its own self-driving car effort - advancing the technology philosophically by suggesting that the steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals be removed and by testing the vehicles on public roads. Google was the first to propose that self-driving vehicles belonged on public roads.

More provocatively, Google presented the case that nothing less than testing on public roads would be sufficient to enable automated driving. In spite of or in reaction to that proposition California regulators required the inclusion of steering wheels and brake and accelerator pedals and the presence of a driver in autonomous test vehicles. It was at this point and on these terms that the current struggle has unfolded.

The business case for Google was to provide transportation options for economically or physically disadvantaged populations. One branch of the Google team ultimately left to pursue commercial vehicle automated driving opportunities (Otto). More than a dozen other startups have targeted public and private driverless shuttle transportation opportunities.

What remains is defining the objective for automated driving and a reasonable and regulated path to market. Auto makers are building Potemkin villages for the purposes of testing cars in real-world-ish scenarios, while technology companies are building simulators to more rapidly compile and analyze the billions of miles necessary to achieve certifiable results. It is clear, though, that nothing less than testing in real world scenarios will advance the technology to the goal of full automation.

But why is the industry suddenly obsessed with this activity - especially given the reality that self-driving cars likely represent a completely different usage scenario not likely to include actual ownership? The interest of the public revolves around testing on public roads and the ultimate objective of reducing highway fatalities. The interest of car makers and regulators is the evolutionary path to autonomy that is expected to make cars safer to drive ... or ride in.

Waymo talks about creating a "better driver" which is too high a bar for short-term commercial opportunities. What is a better driver, anyway?

Actually building an automated driving system capable of surpassing human drivers in all driving circumstances will be a decades-long exercise. It is not a reasonable objective.

Toyota Research Institute CEO Dr. Gil Pratt describes this "better driver" dream as the "chauffeur" mode, where the vehicle is doing all of the driving vs. the guardian angel mode where the vehicle assists in what it perceives as urgently dangerous circumstances or simpler tasks. Regulators have done their best to bring guardian angel technologies to the market such as electronic stability control (ESC) and anti-lock brakes (ABS).

Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pushing for the adoption of Automatic Emergency Brakes on a voluntary basis. But this voluntary effort points up the limitations of the agency. Were NHTSA to press for a mandate, the process would like require nearly a decade of regulatory action.

It was DARPA that opened up the autonomous vehicle conversation. It was Google that issued the call to action - forcing a regulatory response. Now it is the auto industry, insurance companies, city/state/Federal regulators that are coming together to find common cause.

The "why" of autonomous vehicles boils down to:

  1. Reducing highway fatalities (along with congestion and emissions)
  2. Creating transportation opportunities for economically and physically disadvantaged populations
  3. Improving safety, productivity and efficiency in the commercial trucking and public transportation industries
  4. Creating new networked urban transportation alternatives
  5. Extending U.S. leadership in global transportation

In the words of outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx: "This new automation committee will work to advance life-saving innovations while boosting our economy and making our transportation network more fair, reliable, and efficient.”

For car makers, insurance companies, taxi/bus/truck drivers, automated driving actually represents a threat to business as usual. But Federal, city and state regulators are now in the driver's seat with everything to gain from a future defined by automated driving. It will be interesting to see how these parties find common ground. The choice of co-chairs, alone, speaks volumes.

1.     Co-Chair: Mary Barra- General Motors, Chairman and CEO

2.     Co-Chair: Eric Garcetti- Mayor of Los Angeles, CA

3.     Vice Chair: Dr. J. Chris Gerdes- Stanford University, Professor of Engineering

4.     Gloria Boyland- FedEx, Corporate Vice President, Operations & Service Support

5.     Robin Chase- Zipcar; Buzzcar; Veniam, Co-founder of Zipcar and Veniam

6.     Douglas Chey- Hyperloop One, Senior Vice President of Systems Development

7.     Henry Claypool- Community Living Policy Center, Policy Director

8.     Mick Cornett- Mayor of Oklahoma City, OK

9.     Mary “Missy” Cummings- Duke University, Director, Humans and Autonomy Lab, Pratt School of Engineering

10.  Dean Garfield- Information Technology Industry Council, President and CEO

11.  Mary Gustanski- Delphi Automotive, Vice President of Engineering & Program Management

12.  Debbie Hersman- National Safety Council, President and CEO

13.  Rachel Holt- Uber, Regional General Manager, United States and Canada

14.  Lisa Jackson- Apple, Vice President of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives

15.  Tim Kentley-Klay- Zoox, Co-founder and CEO

16.  John Krafcik- Waymo, CEO

17.  Gerry Murphy- Amazon, Senior Corporate Counsel, Aviation

18.  Robert Reich- University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy, Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy

19.  Keller Rinaudo- Zipline International, CEO

20.  Chris Spear- American Trucking Association (ATA), President and CEO

21.  Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger- Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., Founder and CEO

22.  Bryant Walker Smith- University of South Carolina, Assistant Professor, School of Law and (by courtesy) School of Engineering

23.  Jack Weekes- State Farm Insurance, Operations Vice President, Innovation Team

24.  Ed Wytkind- President, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

25.  John Zimmer- Lyft, Co-founder and President

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