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Safety, Infrastructure Will Decide the Near-Term Success of AVs

Improving consumer faith will be central to the success of self-driving vehicles — but so will building out more charging infrastructure.

by / June 6, 2018

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The growth of self-driving cars will be driven, in part, by improving consumer faith that the vehicles are safe, and building out more electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

“I would just caution my fellow car-makers and tech-makers from overpromising," said Brook Taylor, senior state regulatory affairs specialist with Mercedes-Benz. "We have a really golden opportunity right now to seize on a perfect storm of activity and create a new future for how we’re going to get around in vehicles. Let’s not screw it up. Don’t overpromise.

“There’s a sentiment out there which is, ‘Move fast and break stuff,’” Taylor added, referring — derisively — to a frequent mantra trumpeted by Silicon Valley techies. 

“We’re talking about peoples’ lives. We’re talking about a future that could be really impactful and save thousands of lives. So, let’s move at a reasonable pace, and make stuff,” said Taylor, speaking June 1 at Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento during "TecNation: Sacramento," a panel discussion organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to discuss issues related to smart cities.

Autonomous cars have grabbed headlines in recent months as several high-profile crashes involving fatalities have put the nascent technology in front of an increasingly skittish public. Uber, which was testing the autonomous vehicle in Tempe, Ariz., that was responsible for an accident that killed a pedestrian, has suspended its testing of AVs. And a recent survey by AAA found that drivers have become increasingly hesitant about getting into a self-driving car. Some 73 percent of U.S. drivers “would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle,” which is up from 63 percent at the end of 2017, the survey found.

“Don’t overpromise. Make good products. And let’s get there together,” Taylor reiterated.

The growth of autonomous cars in California — the focus of the afternoon’s discussion in Sacramento — will depend, in part, on how robustly electric vehicle charging infrastructure is built out, since many in the industry agree that autonomous vehicles will likely be electric vehicles.

“We have to prepare for electrification,” said Taylor. “This future of AVs and EVs is very much going to come into alignment in the next 10 or 15 years. And in order for that to happen, we need to dramatically increase our supply of electric vehicle charging stations, in this state, particularly.”

California has roughly 20,000 nonresidential charging points. The state is prepared to invest $2.5 billion over the next eight years to grow charging infrastructure and incentives to propel the market forward, said Taylor. Just last month, the California Energy Commission awarded nine cities and organizations nearly $1.8 million through its Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program to develop strategic plans for expansion of electric vehicle charging access.

And indeed, electrification is one of the four pillars of Mercedes’ autonomous vehicle conceptual platform: Connected, Autonomous, Shared and Electric (CASE).

“The idea is that all four of these pillars need to be cohesively blended,” said Taylor.

“The power is blending all four of those into a cohesive vision for how we’re going to change transportation,” said Taylor, speaking with Government Technology after the session. “So it’s going to include innovation around connected vehicles. It’s going to include innovation around autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles as well. And then creating new opportunities around shared services.

"How do we create mobility as a service, which is an opportunity for us as a company, and for our customers,” he said.

Daimler, Mercedes’ parent company, also operates Moovel, which allows numerous transportation and mobility systems to be structured on one app platform.

“You’re going to push one button, and you’re going to pay one price, and it will all be synced together in a seamless effort,” said Taylor.

“The idea is that we want to integrate autonomous vehicles into that as well,” he explained. “And so all of the data that we’re pulling from those movements from our customers allows us to understand how people use transportation, how it integrates with public transports like TNCs, (Transportation Network Companies,) like Uber and Lyft, and allows us to really understand the future of transportation.”

“All of this is part of a long-term vision that we see, where there is going to be less vehicle ownership,” said Taylor.

The data will be used to model behavior, said Grayson Brulte, co-founder of Brulte & Co., a tech innovation consulting company based in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“When you arrive at the train station, that’s going to be used to position cars,” he pointed out. 

Brulte and others at the TecNation talk stressed the need for the federal government to support autonomous vehicles through legislation intended to ease their development — specifically, passage of the AV Start Act, which is still being studied by the Senate transportation committee.

“It’s slowing down innovation. It’s slowing down the United States economy,” Brulte remarked, referring to the lack of passage of the AV Start Act, adding that a lack of leadership by the United States in this arena opens the door to China and Europe to take the lead.

“We want to be safe. But we can’t hamper innovation,” said Sally Frykman, communication and education manager for Velodyne LiDAR, a Silicon Valley maker of lidar systems.

Also, the federal government should take the steps needed to allow autonomous vehicles to travel across state lines, said Brulte.

“And hopefully, in the Senate version of the bill, it will allow [for AV] trucking vehicles under 10,000 pounds,” Brulte added. “Because the United States has a trucking shortage, and if we can’t get autonomous trucks on the road, the entire trucking industry could come to a halt.”

Editor's note: A correction was made regarding the location of Brulte & Co. 

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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