FutureStructure

An Autonomous Future is Dawning in Nevada

Nevada officials bought into Google’s plan and launched into a leading role in the testing and development of autonomous vehicles.

by Adam Candee, Las Vegas Sun / January 30, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Among the implausible and impossible, countless curiosities mingled beneath the metal shadow of the famed unisphere at the 1964 World’s Fair.

Novelty still attached to plastics and Belgian waffles, amazement to nascent computers and jet packs. What little guy wouldn’t dream of zooming around the neighborhood with rockets strapped to his back?

Bruce Breslow walked the fair in Queens, N.Y., with his grandfather, and something even cooler than a jet pack grabbed his imagination.

“I’m at the exhibit as a little boy, 8 years old, and they’re promising me the flying car,” said Breslow, who runs Nevada’s Division of Business and Industry.

"Jetsons"-style flying cars clearly never advanced beyond the dreaming phase, but when Breslow oversaw the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles in 2011, Google pitched him the next-best impossibility: self-driving cars.

Nevada officials bought into Google’s plan and launched into a leading role in the testing and development of autonomous vehicles. Once a science fiction fever dream, self-driving cars equipped with lasers, cameras and radar travel the state’s open roads alongside us today, their status as the reality of the future having shifted from ‘if’ to ‘when.’

Driverless vehicles will not muscle your old sedan off the asphalt tomorrow, but within a decade, Nevadans could be asked to give up their stick shifts. Given the chance to focus on morning emails instead of morning traffic, they might just choose the future over the familiar.

“There’s quite a bit of work and a number of steps to move from where we are now to full autonomy,” said Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). “Nevada is a great place to do that testing and development, and obviously that has started to pick up.”

Autonomous concepts dominated the automotive floor at CES in early January, including the debut of the mysterious Faraday Future FF 91 being developed at a now-stalled site in North Las Vegas. Uber is testing a squad of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, while Lyft co-founder John Zimmer said in September that his company wants to automate half its rides in five years and all of them within 10.

Personal vehicles and ride-sharing will not comprise the entire horizon. Gov. Brian Sandoval rode in Daimler’s first autonomous 18-wheeler in Nevada in 2015, and Las Vegas city officials tested Keolis' driverless shuttle bus downtown earlier this month.

Yet, the benefits of the technology’s growth in the Nevada economy and culture come with potential pitfalls for drivers of ride-shares, trucks and taxicabs, the taxi industry alone employing about 9,000 people.

“It’s going to happen,” said Brendan Morris, a UNLV assistant professor of engineering who studies vehicle automation. “To what level is really I think the question, and when.”

Those questions intertwine with hundreds more, each one a string that tugs on the others when pulled. How quickly self-driving vehicles arrive depends on lawmakers creating a comprehensive regulatory structure that does not become obsolete with each advance, automakers reducing the cost of producing tech-heavy concepts, and the public accepting the safety of speeding down Interstate 15 with only a computer at the helm.

“I would ask, ‘Have you ever been in an accident or talked with someone who was in an accident? Was there any way you could have avoided the accident?’” said Jeff Miller, USC associate professor of engineering education. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ then tell them that the driverless vehicle would have.”

NUTS, BOLTS AND LASERS

Eight licensees are testing a dozen autonomous vehicles in Nevada in search of next steps. Think of the possibilities numerically: What industry officials term Level 0 is the standard-issue vehicle of the past century with no automation, while Level 5 is a fully self-driving car that needs no human engagement and handles all possible road conditions and driving situations.

Such a marvel will not become common in dealer showrooms or ride-hailing fleets within the next few years, but its forefather already parks in your garage. Technology that automatically stops your car to avoid collisions, keeps it in its lane and operates cruise control that adjusts to traffic around you exists even in proletariat cars such as the Honda Civic. These advances form the base for the first four of five levels of autonomy, Level 4 being full autonomy in restricted conditions and the likeliest option for near-term driving revolution.

“Features will be added incrementally, such as driverless technology for traffic-regulated streets, routing from source to destination completely, vehicular communication, etc. The next few years will be dominated by technology in the automotive world,” Miller said.

The bridge to cars in which you sit back and read the newspaper or send texts on your way to work will be built with advances in connectivity, like Audi’s Traffic Light Information, a first in the United States for vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology.

The automaker partnered in December with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) to deliver to certain Audi models data about when traffic lights will turn red, yellow and green. That information displays on the dashboard to inform the driver and reduce the need for sudden stops and starts, and Audi estimates adoption of the tech could increase fuel efficiency by 10 percent.

Audi chose Las Vegas to pilot the program because of the RTC’s advanced traffic management system for the valley. RTC General Manager Tina Quigley recalled Audi officials telling her a similar effort in the greater Los Angeles area would require coordinating with 133 different agencies.

“(There) will be other advances where cars will become sensors along our network of roadways,” Quigley said. For instance, if you hit a nasty pothole on Sahara Avenue or wait an excessively long time at a stoplight on Eastern Avenue, your car can transmit that information to RTC officials to expedite their attention to problem areas.

Tech that serves a magnanimous purpose like helping the government solve road trouble will not sell a ‘connected’ car to a skeptical public, though. Citing a Department of Transportation study that showed 80 percent of accidents not involving drugs or alcohol could be avoided by connected technology, Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems CEO Marcus Welz refers to his company’s work in that field as more than a gateway to the end goal of autonomous.

Siemens works on V2I technology that warns drivers of impending red-light violations, if they take curbs too fast or if pedestrians are about to step into their path.

“Sometimes (connected) doesn’t get as much attention as the self-driving vehicle, which is the technology of the moment, but we shouldn’t forget that in many, many cities, the traffic infrastructure sometimes is 10 years behind the curve,” Welz said.

Nevada’s Center for Advanced Mobility, an offshoot of GOED created in 2016 to better service the growing autonomous and connected segment in the state, will partner this year with the GENIVI Alliance, a collective of automaker and parts suppliers. Together they will test connected technology, including warnings alerting drivers of upcoming bus stops and pedestrian traffic and notices about high-risk areas, which rely on a vehicle’s position and the time of day.

While such features inoculate us to the concept of machine-based driving, autonomy is the ultimate prescription. Autonomous cars are equipped with constantly spinning Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) to create an image of the car’s surroundings, radar sensors to measure distance from objects and cameras to identify hazards. They drive themselves with information they collect themselves.

Yet as connected emerges, autonomous vehicles could benefit from sharing information not just with infrastructure, but eventually with nearby vehicles. Welz referred to autonomous without connected as “flying an airplane without radar,” and Michigan Director of Transportation Kirk Steudle called it “a laptop with no Wi-Fi” at last month’s GO-NV transportation summit.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION, PUBLIC SAFETY

What connects, though, can and almost certainly will be hacked. Veteran journalist Lesley Stahl gasped when military researchers disabled the brakes on her test car from dozens of feet away in a disturbing “60 Minutes” segment two years ago.

“There are legitimate safety and security concerns. It will take many years before the technology matures,” said Raj Rajkumar, a computer and electrical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon. “If vehicles can get hacked into, bad outcomes will result. These intervening years ought to be used fruitfully for new training programs.”

Fears about the safety and security of self-driving cars top the list of development barriers for engineers, government leaders and industry officials.

“We can’t get too far ahead of the public on this,” Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said at GO-NV. “There is an element of trust. They have to be brought along with this.”

A Tesla Model S sedan using Autopilot mode collided with a semitrailer-truck in Florida last summer, killing its driver. Tesla later updated its assisted-driving software and was cleared of responsibility for the accident, but the situation pushed public faith in autonomous vehicles uncomfortably into the spotlight.

A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) surveyed 1,600 consumers, with 54 percent saying autonomous cars are “dangerous” and 28 percent citing hacking as a concern.

“People are already freaked out by automated vehicles when they see them going down the road at 65 mph,” Steudle said. “We’ve got to go slow. One mistake could set them back decades.”

The PwC survey indicated one of the most popular reasons for interest in autonomous vehicles is to protect yourself from other drivers who (clearly) are not as skilled as you.

“The real challenge in getting to the next level is integrating the self-driving cars with all the human drivers, the human drivers that are doing crazy things,” Morris said. “In order to be effective, we need to make sure that the self-driving technologies are aware of human intention and human behavior.”

Safety shaping the public’s concern creates great irony for technology being pursued largely for its ability to reduce accidents and fatalities. A 2015 report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company contends that 90 percent of driving fatalities could be eliminated by autonomous driving. Using the 2015 total of more than 35,000 traffic deaths, that would equate to 31,500 fewer fatalities per year.

“By midcentury, the penetration of (autonomous vehicles) and other (advanced driver-assistance systems) could ultimately cause vehicle crashes in the United States to fall from second to ninth place in terms of their lethality ranking among accident types,” the report states. “Today, car crashes have an enormous impact on the U.S. economy. For every person killed in a motor-vehicle accident, eight are hospitalized, and 100 are treated and released from emergency rooms. The overall annual cost of roadway crashes to the U.S. economy was $212 billion in 2012. Taking that year as an example, advanced (driving systems and autonomous vehicles) reducing accidents by up to 90 percent would have potentially saved about $190 billion.”

A sea change in automotive safety could ripple through related industries beyond health care. The entire model for auto insurance could change if car owners no longer bear responsibility for the actions of their vehicle. Car maintenance might shift from a mechanical field to one of computer science, and some mechanics say today’s cars already require a blend of both. Local governments will need to find an alternate source of millions of dollars in revenue if traffic tickets all but vanish.

First, however, people want to see proof that the benefits of autonomous outweigh fears that cling to what Zimmer refers to as “The Third Transportation Revolution,” following railroads and cars.

“As people continue to see driverless vehicles in the media, and especially as they start to see them on the roads, acceptance will follow,” Miller said. “It is new technology that can physically affect a person. Technology like that is scary at first, but as soon as people realize how much safer and more convenient they are, driverless vehicles will become more accepted and commonplace.”

OPPORTUNITY COSTS

Howard Granger wonders just how commonplace they will become on the Strip, where he has made his living for the past nine years driving a taxi for Yellow Checker Star.

“Good luck with that in Vegas,” Granger said. “You have to get over three lanes right now; those autonomous cars aren’t going to do that. People on the street don’t give you 20 feet, they give you 6 inches.”

As autonomous vehicles roll along Nevada highways toward a more economically diverse future for the state, they could cause transformational change for one of its deepest-rooted industries. Primary among them: What happens to Granger when cars drive themselves?

“Driverless vehicles will definitely be the future of ride-sharing and taxis,” Miller said.

Already financially staggered by the 2015 arrival of Uber and Lyft on what many in the taxicab business feel is an uneven regulatory playing field, local taxicab companies now prepare for another major question in self-driving cars.

“You have to be able to modernize and adapt and give the public what they want,” said Breslow, whose agency oversees the Nevada Taxicab Authority. “I’ve been talking to the cab industry for four years, (saying): 'Think about not so much the (ride-sharing companies) as much as, you're going to have self-driving cars available to your fleet in two or three years. How does that affect your business model? How does that affect your drivers?' They need to think about what kind of industry and business they need to be to be competitive four years from now, eight years from now.”

Stan Olsen chairs the taxicab authority, which regulates cabs in Clark County. Olsen, whose father moved to the state to help construct Hoover Dam in the summer of 1930, sees progress approaching and believes cab companies eventually will welcome it.

“It is a real risk that they’ve got to move into slowly,” Olsen said of self-driving cabs. “It’s the avenue of the future. It’s gonna happen. Everybody sees it coming.”

That risk includes the fate of Granger and the 1,800 Yellow Checker Star drivers working for Jonathan Schwartz. Schwartz emphasizes that rider safety will be the determining factor in the industry's adoption of autonomous cars, but he will consider using them down the line along with what then happens to his drivers.

“That’s obviously a big concern, and I wish people would think about that,” Schwartz said.

Cab ridership in Clark County fell by 4.4 million rides in 2016, the first full year in Las Vegas for Uber and Lyft, which are regulated by the Nevada Transportation Authority. That drop of 16 percent from 2015 equates to $55 million in lost revenue for the taxicab industry.

“Once Uber came to town, they've taken a good 25 percent of our business — 25 percent of my pay, that’s how I know,” Granger said. “I’m hanging in there because I know it’s gotta get better, it can’t get any worse.”

The reality is that autonomous technology could put drivers out of work entirely, though not tomorrow. Tight, unpredictable driving environments like weekend nights on the Strip present the greatest challenge for engineers.

“Drivers of taxis are not going to be eliminated for at least a decade or more,” Miller said. “Even with the first wave of driverless vehicles, we will still need to have a licensed operator in the vehicle. Over time, I think we will get rid of the operator.”

Thousands of drivers forced out of jobs and into the workforce creates a far-off but daunting problem for Nevada economic development officials who are attracting the same businesses causing the disruption.

“We’ve talked about that, certainly,” GOED’s Hill said. “Advancements in technology can be disruptive. People fighting back against that technology, I don’t think is a wise strategy. This technology is going to move forward. We want to participate in those cutting-edge industries because it does provide opportunity for folks in Nevada.

“Over time, it will diminish the number of drivers that have those jobs. I think there may be a little bit of a misperception. That’s going to take some time. It will be an evolution, I think, rather than a real sudden jolt.”

The rapid pace of technology will not set the timeline for autonomous vehicles by itself. Despite recent guidance sent out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, regulation presents a puzzle with many missing pieces. No overarching federal policy exists, and industry officials fear local governments developing patchwork legislation that could make it unbearable to drive from Boston to San Francisco because every state would have different rules for self-driving cars.

“There is a fine line between enabling innovative technologies to be tested and keeping the public safe,” Rajkumar said.

Granger points out that cab safety goes beyond just the rules of the road.

“There’s no supervision in them,” Granger said. “If I wasn’t in my cab with my customers, it would be chaotic sometimes. People get sick in our cabs, they pee on our seats, they leave trash in our cabs — well, I’ve only had one person pee on the seat in eight years, but it happened.

A good Friday night used to bring 32 rides for Granger. Last year, he estimates that fell to 22. Less rides still beats no rides, though. Uber and Lyft will usher the autonomous revolution into Las Vegas in the next decade, and the taxicab companies might follow suit once the technology refines.

“I’m sure they’ll figure it out," Granger said, "and then we’ll all be out of jobs.”

But would he want a self-driving car in his own garage?

“If everybody started getting them, I would. They’re cool as hell.”

INSURANCE AND THE ENVIRONMENT

How could autonomous vehicles affect car insurance?

By 2040, the number of car accidents could drop as much as 80 percent because of autonomous technology. That should give us a break on insurance rates. And make the industry sweat. A 2015 report from insurance consultancy KPMG indicates, “The conversion to autonomous vehicles may bring about the most significant change to the automobile industry since its inception. As the way we drive and commute transforms, the amount, types and purchase of automobile insurance will be impacted. The disruption to insurers may be profound, and the change could happen faster than most expect.”

Are autonomous vehicles better for the environment?

Transportation is America’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, equating to more than a quarter of the harmful gases floating into the atmosphere, according to the EPA. And autonomous vehicles offer a potential solution.

In 2014, Scientific American reported that self-driving cars could achieve a 2 to 4 percent reduction in oil consumption and corresponding greenhouse gas emissions every year over the next decade as the technology trickled into the market. And that didn’t factor in the fuel savings — some projections go as high as 50 percent — from tech-based efficiencies, whether eco-navigation or traffic light synchronization. As more self-driving cars and taxi fleets hit the roads, benefits would theoretically increase exponentially.

However, a full-scale removal of carbon from transportation will require electric power. Autonomous models being tested are fueled like their non-autonomous brethren: Volvo’s XC90 runs on gas, for instance, while Audi’s RS7 is a hybrid. But batteries are projected to take humanity to an emissions-free roadway.

ALL ABOUT AUTONOMOUS

Self-driving cars don’t rely on just one technology to navigate the world around them. Tools using light, image-capture and radio waves combine to paint an immediate, constant picture of the road, and all that travels and surrounds it. And unlike your average driver, the system never gets distracted.

LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging): Laser beams pulsed from a constantly spinning base map the environment around the car in a 360-degree plane. They also gauge the placement and proximity of obstacles to assist in the car’s navigation. The technology first emerged in the 1960s, when meteorologists used it to measure clouds. NASA astronauts employed it in 1971 to map the surface of the moon, and it has since been used extensively for atmospheric research and in the creation of high-resolution aerial maps.

Radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging): From key vantage points, sensors emit high-frequency electromagnetic waves that reflect off of objects back to the car, gauging speed and angle of approach, and measuring the distance between.

Cameras: Mounted with the primary LIDAR unit, cameras on the spinning module feed images from multiple angles into the computer, which not only calculates distances but also detects traffic signals and signs, and discerns the particular movements of cyclists and pedestrians to ensure safe maneuvering.

Computer: The “brain” of the car is in the trunk, and it’s the reservoir for all of the data streaming in as the world zips by. Once information is received, it is analyzed and checked against stored maps.

LEVELS OF AUTONOMY

The industry uses a scale to identify what driving tasks can be completed by a vehicle without driver engagement. Most cars on the road are considered Level 1.

Level 0: Human driver does everything (example: Ford Model T)

Level 1: An automated system can assist the human driver in conducting some specific functions of the driving task (example: cruise control)

Level 2: An automated system can conduct some parts of the driving task, while the human continues to monitor the driving environment and performs the rest of the driving task (example: Tesla’s Autopilot)

Level 3: An automated system can both conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment in some instances, but the human driver must be ready to take back control when the automated system requests (example: doesn’t exist in the open market yet, but expected in about five years)

Level 4: An automated system can conduct the driving task and monitor the driving environment, and the human need not take back control, but the automated system can operate only in certain environments and under certain conditions (example: the autonomous shuttle tested in downtown Las Vegas)

Level 5: The automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them (example: imagine a driverless vehicle that can traverse a winding dirt road in a hail storm)

CONNECTED TECH

Connected technology refers to a vehicle receiving and sending information useful for safe and efficient operation. Self-driving cars are not necessarily connected, as autonomous vehicles are outfitted with equipment that can operate independently. In the future, self-driving cars could become both autonomous and connected.

Cars that are connected can receive information that the driver can use to avoid accidents. It serves an important purpose in winning public trust in automated car technology, as connected tech can be used to assist humans in today’s driver-operated vehicles. Safety is considered not only the primary goal of engineers creating self-driving cars, but also represents the public’s top issue in trusting autonomous technology.

A prime example of connected technology is Audi’s traffic signal information program being piloted in conjunction with the Regional Transportation Commission in Southern Nevada. This vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology sends information from the traffic system to select Audi models that informs the driver if a signal is about to change, as well as how long a light will be red before it turns to green. Other uses being tested include warnings sent to drivers if pedestrians enter into traffic and if traffic comes to a stop ahead of the driver’s field of sight.

Car-to-car communication is a big industry goal. Some experts say cars not only will talk to each other, but will need to in order to realize the full benefits of self-driving technology. Vehicles eventually might be able to share information, such as whether they are going to change lanes.

©2017 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.