On Nov 8, the city of Las Vegas started a yearlong pilot of a self-driving shuttle in partnership with AAA of Northern California, Nevada & Utah and the transportation company Keolis. But it soon hit a speed bump.
Putting a dent in Self-Driving Vehicle
Less than two hours after the autonomous vehicle (AV) hit the streets, it collided with a delivery truck that was backing up in a low-speed, non-injury accident. Reports say the delivery truck was at fault and cited by Las Vegas police for illegal backing.
The incident underlines the still-unresolved question amidst fast-developing self-driving technology: should humans be removed from the roads altogether?
In the Las Vegas example, human error seems to be at fault. The shuttle was the first self-driving vehicle in the United States to have a smart-city technology which enables it to ‘talk’ to traffic signals and reduce congestion.
It has a maximum speed of 27 miles per hour (43.5km/h) but was limited to 12mph (19.3km/h) for the yearlong test. The low speed and its technology helped avoid a disaster.
“The shuttle did what it was supposed to do, in that its sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident. Unfortunately the delivery truck did not stop and grazed the front fender of the shuttle. Had the truck had the same sensing equipment that the shuttle has, the accident would have been avoided,” said the city in a statement.
Separating AVs From Human-driven Vehicles
It is an established fact that human error causes over 90% of all accidents. A 2015 analysis by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 94% of crashes can be traced back to human error or bad decisions.
By extension, removing humans out of the road transportation equation dramatically improves road safety.
The human factor also presents a huge challenge for AVs, which are known to struggle with contextual situations (which arise from human involvement, no less) that human drivers navigate with ease.
A clear example is the fatal Tesla autopilot vehicle crash in May 2016, which involved another human-driven truck.
The US National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation found that it was caused by a combination of the failure of the truck driver to yield and the inattentiveness of the Tesla passenger. It also highlighted the shortcomings of the autopilot system which allowed the driver (also the passenger) to remain disengaged from the surroundings.
In other words, mixing human-operated vehicles and AVs remain hazardous for all road users.
Thus it makes sense to remove the source of the problem for potential accidents down the road: humans. While replacing human drivers with AVs completely is a complex decision that could take years or even decades to happen, the immediate way forward for governments can be to separate AVs from human-operated vehicles.
AVs operating in a closed circuit is more easily achievable than trying to resolve the human-AV interaction issues immediately. For governments, this means providing dedicated lanes for AVs and restrict human-operated vehicles in specific areas where AVs operate.
Phasing Out Humans From Roads
In the long-term, however, the question of co-existence between human drivers and AVs in urban roads will need to be addressed. Safety is a critical consideration but not the only one — authorities must also consider sustainability concerns.
According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), it is not sustainable for AV developments to be left to the private sector. In a nutshell, the inherent commercial interests may lead to AVs replacing personal car ownership.
Worse, the convenience and safety may increase the number of personal cars on the roads significantly, which means worse traffic congestion on nightmarish proportions.
Shared, Not Owned
Instead, the way forward should be ensuring AVs are deeply integrated with public transportation. In other words, AVs should be shared by users, not personally owned.
That calls for a systematic plan by governments to gradually reduce the proportion of human-driven cars on public roads as AV adoption increases.
AV in Public Transportation
It is already prevalent in one form of public transportation — trains. In fact, the first to run without human direction, the Victoria Line of the London Underground rapid transit system, had always been automated since it opened in 1967.
That works because train tracks remove much of the contextual decisions that human drivers face on the roads. Applying the same concept for AVs on roads, it may require driverless vehicles to run on virtual tracks on the road. And the technology is already here.
Last June, CRRC Zhuzhou Locomotive Co Ltd unveiled the world’s first smart bus that follows virtual tracks on the road like a train does. It carries up to 307 passengers and goes as fast as 70 km per hour using the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit technology.
Over in Singapore, the local Land Transport Authority (LTA) has partnered ST Kinetics to develop and pilot self-driving buses. A minibus is set to be unveiled by 2018 and hit the roads by 2020, sources previously told Motion Digest.