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Autonomous Vehicles' Future May Be Further Away, Different Than Imagined

Experts agree that electric and autonomous vehicle technologies are here to stay, but where the industry will be in a decade or more is open to debate.

The future of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could be further off than some believe, and may look different when it finally arrives, according to experts.

During a panel discussion at the 3rd Annual Civic & Gov Tech Showcase in San Jose, Calif., Sept. 13, rideshare, industry, academic and municipal experts took to the issues surrounding the technology and discussed how soon they believe it will take root in our daily lives.

And though the panelists agreed that technologies like electric vehicles (EVs) are here to stay, they had some differing opinions on how AVs move from "scientific experiment" to reality.

“I guess that is the $64 billion question, maybe even larger than that. It’s not a hypothetical, it’s there,” said Ryan Popple, president and CEO at Burlingame-based EV maker Proterra, makers of what it believes to be the “first long-range electric bus.”

Popple, whose company is conducting a pilot in Reno, Nev., using AV technology in an electric bus for object detection and correction, said he sees the biggest challenge in making sure the technology serves all aspects of the markets equitably.

“I don’t think we’re going to go to a world with absolutely no human involvement. You’ll need a vehicle in your fleet, in your arsenal, that can handle diversity of mission if you’re going to accommodate everyone,” said Popple, who sees a possible quick win in AV bus rapid transit lanes, but urged municipalities not to view AV as a “miracle” traffic reducer.

Debs Schrimmer, transportation policy manager at Lyft, said the company is not treating autonomous vehicles as science fiction, but sees ride-sharing as a “really important gateway” to AVs.

Schrimmer said she believes that like rideshare, AV adoption may grow quickly — but by use of AV fleet vehicles, not individual ownership.

“We think that by 2025, private car ownership in the U.S. is going to look very different,” Schrimmer said, noting that Lyft believes by then the majority of its rides could be delivered by electric AV.

The company entered a partnership during the week of Sept. 4 with Mountain View, Calif.-based to work on powering the brains of its AV, Schrimmer said.

“We hope by the end of this year to have our first [AV] public pilot happening on the streets,” she added.

San Jose Transportation Innovation Manager Jill North said the city is currently vetting and exploring responses it received to a Request for Information on an AV pilot.

“I think that by 2025, really, we’ll see fleet vehicles with AV components. We’ve passed through the skunk works phase of the product lifecycle,” she said.

But Ben McKeever, program manager for the UC Berkeley California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) program, disagreed on adoption rates.

“I would say it’s probably going to be longer than 2025. A lot will happen between now and then. I’m going to say it’s going to be 20 years or so before we see anything close to a full rollout deployment of AV that are self-driving,” McKeever said.

The program manager, who has worked on intelligent transportation systems — including the state’s first AV test — for “around 30 years,” admitted “there are obviously going to be huge developments in coming years.” But he also said he believes that any such rollout “will be in limited areas” like AV bus “managed” rapid transit lanes.

“Those things are going to happen and I think it will be really exciting to see how governments embrace that technology,” he said.

Beyond 'People-Movers'

Moderator Mike Harrigan, senior program manager at Prospect Silicon Valley, told Government Technology that he was somewhat surprised “by the diversity” of responses, and described public agencies as “feeling their way along” — though more quickly in California and other hot spots than nationwide.

“Around here — because there’s so much AV technology being developed around here — every city wants to be the testbed. We want bragging rights about, ‘We’re testing autonomous vehicles in our city,’” he added. “Will it ever make it to Des Moines, Iowa? I just don’t know. I mean, we’re in a bubble here in California.”

Panelists also predicted some exciting potential uses for autonomous and electric vehicles outside of simply moving passengers.

Asked by Harrigan what issues AV technology raises with respect to security, privacy and safety, Schrimmer said rideshare companies need to guard customers’ data closely given the “unprecedented” amount of information that could be collected.

“I think that Lyft has a very important charge to protect the privacy of our customers,” Schrimmer said, noting that individual mobility patterns are “very unique across time and space,” and raise questions about who the people are behind them.

North said AV data will be a new “set of eyes and ears” for San Jose, which could prepare for a “compatible” future by sharing it securely. The city, she said, is working on a privacy policy to keep information safe.

Popple said the EV potential is clear: The vehicles could load up electric grids during overnight downtime — while enjoying reduced rates — and potentially serve as a power source during weather emergencies.

Driverless Regulation

Panelists also discussed the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research in Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, which was passed earlier this month by the U.S. House of Representatives and would create a framework for federal AV regulation.

McKeever said the legislation would “provide a lot of clarity” on regulatory questions and differentiate between the federal government's role of minding vehicles and their autonomous systems, and the state’s role of regulating drivers and operators.

“My understanding is, they’re putting it all on [the National Transport and Safety Authority],” he said, calling the possibility of overburdening the organization “the biggest risk in this.”

Yet despite its popularity, Popple and Schrimmer were among those who warned against assigning too much value to AV and EV technology.

Continuing to give motorists an “all you can eat” model on roads — drive all you want any time — will only deliver congestion, Popple said.

“I think passing policies and educating our infrastructure in ways that encourage people to take shared rides is critical,” Schrimmer said. “The more points we can have to discourage people from driving alone — all these things are going to be working together.”

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.