“My dear guests, I am Mr. Roarke, your host. Welcome to Autonomy Island.”
Yes, here on Autonomy Island, all of the cars are autonomous. Your adventure will be to ride and drive in a place without fear of a human running you over.
When will an automaker (or collective of automakers, or government, or Google) buy all the cars on an island (and perhaps rent the government), replace them with new autonomous vehicles, and see what happens … to safety, to travel behavior, etc?
This is the kind of real world laboratory experiment that would be highly useful to understand the implications, the unintended side effects, the bugs and so on of robotic cars.
For instance, take the US Virgin Islands. St. Croix has a population of about 50,000 people. If it follows general US patterns, it has about 33,000 light vehicles. For about $1B [Less than the cost of a single NFL stadium] all of the cars could be replaced with autonomous vehicles at about $33,000 each. [This might be a stretch, but that would be a typical mass production cost.]
The advantages of an island are that it is a closed system, it can be fully mapped, no one can drive on or off. The advantages of a real island with real people are the ability to see how these interactions might actually occur in use.
Autonomous vehicles interacting with only autonomous vehicles should be much easier to design than autonomous vehicles in mixed traffic, as the environment is less variable. People, animals, weather, and so on are still potential confounding factors, but should be simpler to manage than a person in a car.
David Levinson is an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who attended this month’s conference. He explained to me that the key for autonomous vehicles is that they can react far more quickly and precisely to their surroundings.
“We could go down from 33,000 to a few hundred deaths per year by car,” Levinson told me. “In mixed environments, speeds can be regulated so that cars go much slower. People might be more wiling to travel at slower speeds in neighborhoods when they don’t have to stop at stupid traffic lights. And we won’t have the option to be more aggressive, like we can right now.”
Unlike many harried urban drivers today, robot cars would always stop for a child crossing the street or give plenty of room to a bicyclist. Saving tens of thousands of lives, while making cities safe again, is an inspiring vision.
Impeccably driven robot cars would also greatly expand our road capacity. Compared to mistake-prone humans, over twice as many robot cars might fit onto a lane of highway, which could make traffic jams (and freeway expansions) obsolete.
At the same time, the ability to daydream while driving is appealing to stressed-out commuters. As Levinson explained to me, robot cars might lead to even more driving than we see today.
“Autonomous cars will be faster on average, and as a result they’ll increase the distance people are willing to travel, “ Levinson told me. “They will also reduce the cognitive burden of drivers, and so people will be willing to spend more time driving. Both things would lead to further suburbanization.”
Even so, changes like slower growth in the amount of driving are poised to reshape the region’s transportation needs, said David Levinson, a U of M professor and chair in transportation engineering for the university’s Department of Civil Engineering. Data from countries with older populations than the United States’ suggest the country is likely to see demand slow further as baby boomers age.
“We need to be thinking about not that we need to be adding capacity but maintaining what we have and what we need [and] thinking about strategic reductions in our capacity,” Levinson said. “That’s not a conversation that’s going on anywhere.”
The downtown should become denser as driverless cars become more widespread, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor and chair in transportation engineering for the university’s Department of Civil Engineering.
But residents outside the downtown will also choose to live farther away from the core because driverless technology will make their commutes more efficient and they’ll be able to do something besides driving during the commute.
“We know that the more people have to think about their trips, the more they overestimate the time they are actually taking,” Levinson said. “So if they don’t think about their trips, they’re going to tend to underestimate how much time they’re taking and they’ll be more willing to be traveling.”
Karlyn Stanley, RAND Corporation senior researcher, who will discuss the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead for autonomous and automated vehicles and the legal, regulatory, and policy frameworks responsible for their oversight and governance.
Bryant Walker Smith, University of South Carolina law professor, who will address the legal, ethical, and policy issues surrounding automated driving.
A panel discussion led by Senator Scott Dibble, Santa Clara University law professor Dorothy Glancy, and University of Minnesota professor David Levinson. The panel will explore the impacts and implications of autonomous vehicles for society.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who will close the conference by addressing opportunities and visions for Minnesota.
Breakout sessions exploring industry and design perspectives, civil liability and insurance, criminal liability, regional and city planning perspectives, and ethics, equity, and access.
For a detailed event program and speaker information, please visit the event website.