A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

The other side of robot cars

Written June 6th, 2018 by Hasso Hering

Albany traffic on Ninth Avenue: What if autonomous vehicles add to congestion?

There’s a lot of enthusiastic buzz about our automotive future, which we are told will be dominated by autonomous vehicles. But there’s likely to be a downside too.

Oregon is actively working on how fully autonomous vehicles — robot cars that need no human to drive them at all — would use our roads, and what the various effects would be. The legislature created a task force on autonomous vehicles, and subcommittees of that group met Wednesday in Salem.

Insurance and liability were two issues on the agenda. Almost all road accidents now — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 94 percent — are caused by human error. Autonomous vehicles would fix that. They make no mistakes, we are told. They don’t drink or text and drive, don’t run stop signs, make no unsafe left turns, and so forth. So if we do away with traffic crashes, liability insurance should become cheap. And if an autonomous vehicle overheats a circuit and does cause a wreck, you can’t blame the driver, for no one was driving.

Another issue Wednesday was law enforcement. Suppose a robot car kills someone, as unlikely as that may be, can anyone be prosecuted?

At a recent meeting of another state committee, the Road User Fee Task Force, someone from ODOT was outlining all the potential benefits of fully connected automated vehicles — greater safety, mobility for all the people young and old who now can’t drive, vehicles warning other vehicles of slowdowns and traffic jams, and so forth.

On the other hand, Andrew Dick, the ODOT official, warned: “We could see the opposite effects from automated vehicles.”

They could lead to more congestion, not less. Not only would there be human drivers on the road, but robot cars would also be out on their own. “With automated vehicles you could see easier zero-occupancy trips,” Dick was quoted in the minutes, “where somebody sends their vehicle home to park it in their driveway during the day.”

With an automated rig, if you have a schedule conflict, you could go to the dentist while telling your car to take your 9-year-old to soccer practice on its own and then pick you up when your fillings are done.

Fully autonomous vehicles could also increase sprawl. If you can do all your paperwork and make your calls during the commute because a robot is driving, it doesn’t matter how far from the office you live.

These are things to think about when sitting in traffic in Albany or anywhere else. Just make sure you don’t become distracted, which a robot would never do. (hh)

15 responses to “The other side of robot cars”

  1. JD says:

    Another item that could come with fully autonomous vehicles and smart/connected cities… You could see a place where commuter “lanes” could be better utilized, as the cars could communicate with each other to let cars with privileged/priority access through a traffic jam faster. It wouldn’t have to be just one lane, and the priority could be determined on a number of factors – such as # of people in the vehicle, how much one commutes on bike/green methods, carbon offsets, negotiated contracts (e.g. high end car manufacturers could have their own “lane” for their customers), or potentially a person could pay a toll/micropayment transaction to others to have them move out of the way (but that could also have an change in society where people sit in their car to get micropayments).
    Thankfully traffic in the Corvallis-Albany area is really not that bad compared to large cities. :)

    • HowlingCicada says:

      Very good ideas provided that everything is transparent and nondiscriminatory. But I’m uneasy about “negotiated contracts” which tend to be secret (an unrelated example being the mailing rates paid by Amazon).

  2. Dateria Weygandt says:

    I’m torn on this subject, as a 40 year old woman who has Epilepsy, and has never driven and may never drive. I am excited at the possibility of someday having my independence and not having to rely on anyone to drive me. On the other hand this kind of technology is just a tad scary having cars just running around on there own is a little like the making of a sci-fi film where the robots take over(may watch too many movies). Still sounds great to me and my future independence. I will be in line waiting for one.

  3. Doug Klinkebiel says:

    Cars that drive themselves. Robots doing everything for us. Two things come to mind:

    HAL 9000
    In The Year 2525

  4. James Engel says:

    From what technology that’s presently out there on robot cars they have a failing in registering & making allowances for smaller objects. Like my motorcycle! In at least two fatalities the robot car hit & killed pedestrians/bicyclist. I just don’t have faith in the robo technology to co-exist on the same road.

    • Brad says:

      The bicyclist in Arizona was Uber’s fault and they’re nowhere close to being in the lead for self-driving technology. Uber is known for constantly screwing up everything. When self-driving cars come to Oregon it’s going to be by companies who know what they’re doing, like GM and Waymo, and by the time they get here they’ll be more or less perfect. Don’t worry, they’re not going to let the cars mow down pedestrians and cyclists.

  5. DSimpson says:

    “If you can do all your paperwork and make your calls during the commute because a robot is driving, it doesn’t matter how far from the office you live.” In this scenario, you should be working remotely, and not traveling to the office in the first place.

  6. Richard Vannice says:

    Jim Engel is right on. I didn’t see any mention of the accidents that robo cars have had fairly recently.
    Additionally – what if the robo car commits a traffic violation and the police try to stop it? Does it obey or continue on down the road?

    • Hasso Hering says:

      Why would they want to stop it? To ticket the driver?

    • Brad says:

      Robocars know to pull over when any emergency vehicle approaches. If that were to fail, the passenger in the car has a stop button. And some states are requiring remote “call center” operators of the car for situations that the car can’t yet handle.

      And if you’re worried about accidents, you should worry more about the 40,000 people who are murdered by current cars every single year. And the million or so others who are hospitalized and permanently disabled because of accidents. Robocars are not only going to eliminate jobs of drivers, they’re going to eliminate jobs in emergency rooms.

      • hj.anony1 says:

        That is funny and seemingly true. You had me up to “emergency rooms”.

        Humans, Be Humans right.

        NO BRAD, Don’t close those yet. We’ll still need them & the appreciated Emergency Doc.

  7. J. Jacobson says:

    The future, including rob-cars is probably inevitable. If you’re concerned about preventing what is likely unstoppable, then you’d best generate better arguments than what we see in the article and in the comments. AI and robot technology is just around the corner in cultural terms. Get on board. Luddites will use these technologies because the choices will be few.

  8. Ray Kopczynski says:

    Considering the # of “accidents” by current vehicles, should we wonder why any of them are allowed on the roads? We very actively allow & encourage ourselves to be more distracted, yet tend to wallow in the correctness of designing “safer” cars vs. forcing compliance with driving more safely. The hypocrisy is palpable…

  9. centrist says:

    First heard of hands-off vehicles in my childhood in the 50s. Technology may have kept it from happening, but the drive to eliminate public transport could have been a major player (only so much money and talent).
    I spent many years adapting control systems to follow the decisions made by humans. In a perfect world, where every condition is known and has a specific response, there is ALWAYS an answer. We are in a world of wants, bumps, and uncertainty.
    AI is still in post-nascent, pre-competence.


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