When computer-controlled driverless vehicles one day take to the streets of New York, their common original ancestor will be a sleek, white and red Audi sedan nicknamed “Jack.”
This week, Jack will start taking test spins in Albany near the state Capitol, accompanied inside by two human engineers, who can instantly take control should any issue arise. Jack’s inaugural trip on Tuesday marks the state’s first foray into the burgeoning field of autonomous vehicle technology.
The market for such vehicles — in which computers, sensors and ever-increasing artificial intelligence (AI) take over some or all of the driving — is expected to explode in coming years, changing the nature of travel and work. Welcome to a brave new world where “driving” changes to “being driven.”
Driverless vehicles could remake personal transportation, and entire industries including taxis, bus fleets, commercial trucking, and farming. Such systems could save hundreds of thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost in human-caused accidents, while also throwing millions of paid human drivers out of work.
Such vehicles have the “potential to uproot personal mobility as we know it,” according to a federal transportation policy adopted in September.
“Will they fully replace the human driver? What ethical judgments will they be called upon to make?” asked then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox. “Will they disrupt the nature of privacy and security?”
In the new state budget adopted in April, New York invited car companies to demonstrate the technology behind such possibilities. On May 12, German carmaker Audi became the first — and so far, only — company to apply for a testing permit from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Audi Government Affairs Director Brad Stertz said the company wants to start selling an AI-equipped model that can handle start-and-stop, low-speed traffic jam driving within the next 18 months. Sometime between 2020 and 2022, Audi hopes to sell a stronger AI vehicle that can handle highway driving.
Other vehicle companies are working elsewhere in the country. Last fall, Uber and Google began testing driverless taxis in Pittsburgh. Honda, Volvo, Honda, Delphi Automotive, Tesla and Chinese technology company Baidu have all announced plans to develop such vehicles.
California opened up testing in 2016, and currently, 21 companies hold permits to demonstrate their technology. In Iowa last fall, farm equipment makers International Harvester and New Holland unveiled driverless tractors that can be controlled from a laptop and set to work in the fields on a variety of tasks, while the owner sits on the front porch and enjoys a cool glass of lemonade.
“It will be interesting to see if driverless tractors take off in New York,” said Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau spokesman. “Our landscape and field sizes are much different than say the large tracts of land in the Midwest, but this technology is as important to farmers as it is to the general public.”
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, researcher Selmer Bringsjord is looking at how to join machine-driven artificial intelligence into unmanned military logistics vehicles, so the machines will understand when and how to help (or at least not harm) humans depending on the situation.
“There can be little question that, while it might be a one-in-a-million thing, automated vehicles — and not just cars — will need to make ethical decisions in the future,” said Bringsjord, director of the RPI Artificial Intelligence and Reasoning Lab. “In fact, they’ll need to make ethical decisions that we never even face.”
Under New York’s law, driverless vehicle tests must be done by April 2018, with the DMV and the State Police, who also will be watching next week as Jack goes through its paces, required to file a report by June 2018 outlining potential rules for the new technology.
State Police Staff Sgt. Terence McDonnell, of the Traffic Services Section, said the ability of driverless cars to continuously communicate with each other and with electronic sensors on highways could unleash “tremendous potential to reduce motor vehicle crashes and their resultant injuries and fatalities.”
The technology also could help people who are unable to drive, such as the elderly, blind and mentally disabled, he said.
Audi spokeswoman Ellen Carey said “Jack” has already logged thousands of test miles in states including Florida, Virginia, California, Nevada, as well as Washington, D.C. This spring, the car drove hundreds of miles on highways between Silicon Valley in California and Las Vegas, with AI handling 90 percent of the driving.
Under state rules, companies have to file testing results with DMV and McDonnell’s office that include any findings related to “safety, traffic control, traffic enforcement and emergency services.” Companies also have to provide a $5 million insurance policy, just in case the vehicle gets into an unforeseen accident.
Under current federal DOT policy, cars are ranked according to six different levels of automation starting with zero, which represents traditional vehicles where the driver does everything.
Level 1 means some automated systems can assist the driver with specific actions, like parking or backing up; some cars already have such functions.
Under Level 2, automation performs some driving tasks, while the human driver does the rest and watches the road and other traffic for potential risk.
At Level 3 (where Audi’s “Jack” is), automation in certain conditions drives and monitors the road while the human driver is ready to assume control if needed.
With Level 4, automation assumes even more control, and at Level 5, assumes total control, with the artificial intelligence of the machine making all observations and all driving decisions.
In January, Audi announced a partnership with California technology firm Nvidia and Delphi Automotive to develop AI technology that will allow a vehicle to learn. Using “neural networks and end-to-end deep learning,” according to an Audi statement, such a system “learns from both the road and the driver in every mile it travels and can handle unpredictable situations like roadblocks, construction and changes in weather.”
This system, dubbed ZFas, was demonstrated this year at a trade show in Las Vegas. The companies want the technology to be commercially available in three years.
A report released this month by technology giant Intel Corp. predicted that driverless vehicles could be a $7 trillion market in the U.S. by 2050, when Level 5 vehicles could be adopted globally.
The report by Strategy Analytics said such vehicles could dominate industries like package delivery and long-haul transportation. New uses would start in the hospitality, dining, tourism and entertainment industries.
Commuters being driven in congested cities could do other, more useful things in the meantime, freeing up 250 million hours of productivity a year, the report predicted. And savings from avoiding traffic accidents caused by human error could run in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Driverless vehicles — which the report dubbed the “Passenger Economy” — will mark “the greatest transition in human mobility since humans left their horses for a new relationship with the horseless carriage.”
But the report also warned that since occupations for drivers have traditionally been “entry-level,” the rise of AI vehicles could “create potential labor problems that could last for “one or two generations of workers … Ultimately, jobs that require humans to drive, and load and unload cargo will be replaced by robotics where economically feasible.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 3 million people are currently employed as short- or long-haul truck drivers. Another 233,000 are working as taxi drivers. And some 665,000 are bus drivers.
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