Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Mandating V2V Connectivity Is a Waste of Time"

Ronald Bailey, Science Correspondent, Reason magazine (adapted from "Will Politicians Block Our Driverless Future,", June 18, 2016)

There are two "equally important components that will determine the future of autonomous vehicles," Lyft's vice president for government relations, Joseph Okpaku said at a March Senate Commerce Committee hearing. "The first is the interaction of everyday people with these new vehicles, and the second is the much more unpredictable interface of government with this entirely new transportation resource."

University of Texas engineer Kara Kockelman notes that traditional automakers tend to "see the transition to self-driving as a very natural, very normal process adding over time features like GPS, adaptive cruise control, cameras, lane-keeping-assist systems, dedicated short-range communication, and so forth." Such semi-autonomous vehicles can safely operate only in predictable traffic environments, so some manufacturers are suggesting that dedicated additional infrastructure, such as separate highway lanes, be built for them.

But "special lanes are a bad idea," says Kockelman. "They would be incredibly expensive and constraining." Planners, politicians, and regulators may think that establishing dedicated infrastructure for self-driving cars is helpful, but autonomous vehicle pioneer Brad Templeton notes that "such rules could easily lead to them not being allowed in ordinary lanes."

Kockelman argues that semi-autonomous vehicles, or what NHTSA calls "limited self-driving automation," present a big safety problem. With these so-called Level 3 vehicles, drivers cede full control to the car for the most part, but must be ready at all times to take over if something untoward occurs. The problem is that such semi-autonomous cars travel along safely 99 percent of the time, allowing the attention of their bored drivers to falter. In an August 2015 study, NHTSA reported that depending on the on-board alert, it took drivers as long as 17 seconds to regain manual control of the semi-autonomous car. "The radical change to full automation is important," argues Kockelman. "Level 3 is too dangerous. We have to jump over that to Level 4 full automation, and most manufacturers don't want to do that. They want protection; they want baby steps; they want special corridors. They won't get that."

Consequently, the first law of the robocar revolution, according to Templeton, is that "you don't change the infrastructure." Whatever functionality is needed to drive safely should be on board each individual vehicle. "Just tell the software people that this is the road you have to drive on, and let them figure it out," Templeton says. "Everything you must do is in the software, or you lose." Some self-driving shuttles confined to specific areas—airports, pedestrian malls, colleges campuses—will be deployed, but they are not the future of this technology.

Another infrastructure mistake would be mandating the deployment of "smart roadside infrastructure," such as traffic lights and sensors to monitor conditions like icing on bridges and communicate the information via radio to autonomous cars. In 2015, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), Gary Peters (D, MI), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) embraced this idea when they introduced the Vehicle Innovation Act, which included spending more than $300 million on various favored tech, including vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications systems.

Before embracing such external information systems, keep in mind that the U.S. DOT estimated in 2007 that 75% of the nation's 330,000 traffic lights are mistimed or use obsolete control systems. "If city and county street and road agencies can't keep traffic signals up-to-date, how long would it take them to install and upgrade smart road systems?" Randal O'Toole asked in a 2014 Cato Institute study, "Policy Implications of Autonomous Vehicles." It's all most states and cities can do to fix potholes, much less deploy and maintain sophisticated networks of roadway sensors.

Other regulators and politicians want to require automobiles to be equipped with V2V communications tech using dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) protocols. The idea is that cars could talk to one another to provide warnings of traffic jams, accidents ahead, or vehicles in front that are braking. They might even cooperate with one another to get through intersections. A good bit of the Obama Administration's promised $4 billion for autonomous vehicles would be earmarked forV2V research and development.

"DSRC is already obsolete," argues Kockelman. "Regulators simply can't write down a communications standard that will be useful for a long time." Templeton agrees. "People outside the industry think it's essential, and the car companies are just going along with it to keep them happy," he says. "It's something designed in 2000 [that] wouldn't be fully deployed until 2030 or later." The bottom line: "Mandating V2V connectivity is stupid and a waste of time."

Templeton cites the internet as a model for how to roll out the technologies that enable self-driving cars. "The internet is a dumb network that connects smart devices," he explains. "You want smart cars running on stupid roads." Dumb networks push innovation to the edge, giving end-users control over the speed and direction of change.