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posted on 19 January 2018

Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles?

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Random Thoughts from the High Desert

Not fully autonomous, but Zeus is able to focus on his primary activity which is not steering the chariot. Are we headed in this direction and if so what does the timing appear to be? It is far more complicated than most realize and has far-reaching consequences.

Chariot of Zeus:

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This article about Volvo delaying their plans for broader testing of autonomous vehicles attracted my attention.

In early announcements about Drive Me, Volvo promised to have 100 self-driving vehicles on the road but that has been downgraded. Volvo now says it will have 100 people involved in the Drive Me program within the next four years. Initially, the people taking part in Drive Me will test the cars with the same Level 2 semiautonomous assistance systems that are commercially available to anyone who purchases the vehicle in markets such as Europe and the U.S.

On the journey, some of the questions that we thought were really difficult to answer have been answered much faster than we expected. And in some areas, we are finding that there were more issues to dig into and solve than we expected,” Marcus Rothoff, Volvo’s autonomous driving program director, told Automotive News Europe.

Volvo has decided they need to better understand user requirements to provide a saleable product. I applaud that but believe their lens is too narrowly focused to provide good results. Their goal is to provide a product that will command a premium price.

This article is my attempt to describe the complexity of the matter and how vehicle design can not successful proceed without dealing with the required changes in the way we provide services to travelers.

I think we are going to see two very different technology tracks related to autonomous transportation devices.

A. Those that transport inanimate objects and livestock.
B. Those that transport people.

Inanimate Objects

The transport of inanimate objects and livestock seems to me to have far fewer obstacles. Importantly, packages have no legal rights other than to be delivered on time without damage and livestock have very few rights greater than those of packages and have in general a weak lobby other than to protect the rights of the owners of the livestock. In very few cases would assessed damages exceed the value of the item being transported. There are exceptions where delay creates damages but percentagewise it is a low percentage.

It is best to look at the use of autonomous approaches re the delivery of inanimate objects and livestock as a refinement of existing multi-model transport of goods and services. There may be some very surprising approaches including approaches predicted by science fiction. But that is a topic for another day


Much of society is organized to deal with the transport of people. People in transit have many needs including the need to:

1. be safe

2. be fed

3. be able to sleep

4. be entertained

5. have access to bathrooms

6. have access to communications

7. have transport coordinated with other activities planned by the travelers

8. have access to medical care

9. have the transport mechanism be reliable with fast access to repair

10. identify with the means of transport.

This may not be the complete list. But everything on this list is required for people to be willing to use autonomous transport and pay a premium for the privilege of having a loss of control. Almost everything on the list is itself a supplier and a stakeholder and depends on people being transported for the demand for their services.

From what I can tell, the proponents of autonomous transport of humans have paid little if any attention to the above. That means they are not thinking sufficiently broadly to make predictions on the timing of market acceptance of this technology. In the business world, those who do not do stakeholder analysis are indeed myopic since the failure to consider how your product fits with the real world is an omission that can have significant negative impacts.

All of the "systems" which support the above "amenities" have to adjust to autonomous transport of humans. Some of the providers of the above may not be happy with autonomous transport of humans and may take actions to prevent it from happening. If one is an intelligent business person, you consider the overall system in which you plan to operate.

Major Premise for Understanding the Acceptance Curve that Applies to Autonomous vehicles to transport humans.

You are doing a lot more than swapping out the control module."

At this point It is useful to discuss the levels of being autonomous. This is from a source but I have added some minor thoughts to it.


Level 0: This one is pretty basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power. It's what we have been doing all along.

Level 1: This driver-assistance level means that most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car. This capability has been available for a long time.

Level 2: In level 2, at least one driver assistance system of "both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment" is automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. It means that the "driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time," according to the SAE. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however.

Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift "safety-critical functions" to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for the previous levels. Jim McBride, autonomous vehicles expert at Ford, said this is "the biggest demarcation between Levels 3 and 4." He's focused on getting Ford straight to Level 4, since Level 3, which involves transferring control from car to human, can often pose difficulties. "We're not going to ask the driver to instantaneously intervene—that's not a fair proposition," McBride said. [Editor’s Note: This is where the technology has broken down until now. It is unrealistic to have a driver not in control but ready to take control instantly and be effective. When I was involved with this technology in the late eighties, it was this barrier that was of most concern re moving forward]

Level 4: This is what is meant by "fully autonomous." Level 4 vehicles are "designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip." However, it's important to note that this is limited to the "operational design domain (ODD)" of the vehicle—meaning it does not cover every driving scenario.

[Editor’s Note: The products being presented as Autonomous are really Level 4 meaning they are autonomous only in the ODD. In my opinion they will not command a premium price and will fail in the marketplace.]

Level 5: This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle's performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driverless vehicles in the near future.

The below requirements are more obvious for long-distance driving. This is where the behavior of the driver changes most dramatically. Two things are very important:

  • Driver fatigue is reduced or eliminated impacting the time interval for the driver needing to take a break.
  • Many ancillary services are currently obtained during fatigue triggered breaks usually in a location where a variety of services for travelers are provided. In the future these services are likely to be provided very differently and it is the parallel development of the control technology and the service provision technology that will determine the rate of deployment of autonomous vehicles for transport of humans.

Some of the Key Needs of Travellers

Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on Current Ways of Providing these Services

Impact on the Requirements for and the Design of Autonomous Vehicles

More General Impacts

1. To be safe

Impact on private insurance.

Accidents are more likely to be blamed on the vehicle rather than the driver

Impact on price of vehicle since the manufacturer will bear the liability for most accidents

Passenger restraints may not be consistent with the longer duration of trip segments and the perceived higher level of safety.

Going by vehicle will be more competitive with air and rail travel

2. be fed

Negative impact on traditional food service businesses and the towns that depend on that business

In vehicle food preparation. Mobile food distribution at highway speed

Change in spacing of travel related services as the distance traveled between breaks gets larger. This has significant negative impact on those activities and thus creates opponents to autonomous vehicles.

3. be able to sleep

Reduced demand for motel rooms and the impact on towns where motels are a large part of the economy

More in-vehicle sleeping facilities

Similar to “2”

4. be entertained

Less reliance on entertainment during breaks

More in-vehicle entertainment

New opportunities for the entertainment industry in-vehicle.

5. have access to bathrooms

Reduced reasons to stop in towns with such services

More in-vehicle bathroom facilities

Similar to “2”

6. have access to communications

May need highway based communication capabilities.

Need for same communication capabilities as in home or office

Convergence with technologies related to truck regulation and with public safety e.g. the ability to slow down or stop a vehicle that is considered to be a risk.

7. Have transport coordinated with other activities planned by the humans.

This is also important with package transport but not usually as important.

Responsibility rests with the driver. There exist many services which the driver (or the driver's delegate) can utilize.

More opportunities to integrate what now are fairly separate modes of transportation. An example would be for airlines to know how many passengers will arrive at the gate on time. Potentially security checks might be done in transit.

May lead to increases in economic productivity

8. if needed, have access to medical care

Responsibility rests with driver and first responders

More in-vehicle medical services starting with monitoring.

Vehicles will become quasi ambulances

9. have the transport mechanism be reliable with fast access to repair. This is true for the transport of inanimate objects also.

Autonomous vehicles may be more significantly compromised by loss of functionality than current vehicles.

Responsibility rests with the driver. The market responds to demand. Over time such services are concentrated on routes where the demand is highest.

Increased need for standardization of parts. One might see more concentration in the vehicle sector.

10. Identify with the means of transport. This means to me that the vehicle on demand approach has only niche applications. People care what they drive and own. Notice I said they care what they drive not they care what they are transported in.

People do care about they are seen to arrive in but they care a lot more about what is associated with them. It is part of their identity.

Branding is the traditional approach.

People identify with vehicles and wish to own them

This argues against transportation on demand. People care about what vehicle transports them, packages do not.

There may be ways to create artificial affinity with a non-owned vehicle on demand. This is done with computers where screen savers are customized. Perhaps one might have access to data that customizes a generic vehicle to one that a person will identify with.

Lots of potential to find ways to have people identify with a standardized transportation service.

The risk curve for manufacturers will become steeper and market shares will change more dramatically,

The overall direction would seem to be a convergence of the passenger vehicle with recreation vehicles. The challenge will be dealing with requirements that are Level 4 and Level 5. The optimum design of a vehicle capable of Level 5 might be dramatically different than a vehicle capable of Level 4.

A level 5 vehicle might not need a driver’s compartment. So this tends to represent a convergence with an RV. But a Level 4 Vehicle might be very similar to current vehicles.

There are also a large number of legacy vehicles on the road. There are over 250 million light vehicles registered with an average age of about 11.5 years. The smart vehicles have to be able to get along with the less smart vehicles and vice versa. This is more difficult than most realize. An example is traffic intersections. It is one of the most challenging situations and might lead to the need for all intersections to be redesigned. The trend seems to be contrary to what is needed as it seems to focus on minimizing right of way acquisition costs rather than minimizing the complexity of navigating intersections.

In approximately 1990, a decision was made that it just was too complicated to sort this out and the Automated Highway project was cancelled and the decision was made to focus on Level 3 Vehicles and plan for Level 4 Vehicles.

I was involved in this as a consultant to USDOT at that time. All of our work is on the record. I was a consultant to USDOT on the development of the National Systems Architecture for Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and my two areas of responsibility were costs and benefits. I also participated unofficially in the work of the Automated Highways Work Group which was not a fully approved project but exploratory work to determine if it should become a project.

That was 30 years ago so progress has occurred but more slowly than one might have expected and I see the same pattern of underappreciation of the obstacles which will slow deployment until a point is reached where deployment takes off.

The below is not the focus of this article but this recent event is not what one wants. This was not an autonomous aircraft and miraculously no one was injured but it points out the power of images and it would not take many accidents involving autonomous vehicles to hinder progress even if on average autonomous vehicles were safer than driver controlled vehicles.

Source Getty Images

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