Driverless cars could improve safety, but impact on jobs, transit questioned – Chicago Tribune
If you are battling traffic, teaching a teen how to make a left-hand turn or worrying over the driving skills of an elderly relative, a driverless car may seem like a marvelous thing.
Cars are being tested by companies like Delphi and Google that are capable of sensing the environment and navigating without human input, and transportation experts expect that we will start seeing them on the market in the next five years. Newer cars already have early versions of driverless technology, such as a self-parking function and automatic braking systems, which can detect obstacles even when the human operator does not.
If everything works out the way designers hope, fully autonomous cars could make the streets safer. In 2014, the National Safety Council found that more than 35,400 people died in car crashes, and the biggest causes were alcohol, speeding and distracted driving — factors that should not be a concern with an autonomous vehicle.
But nothing is perfect: Federal authorities are investigating what is believed to the first fatality involving self-driving technology, in which a Tesla driver was killed in Florida in May.
And every major innovation comes with costs. Removing professional cab and truck drivers and replacing them with autonomous vehicles would destroy millions of jobs. Ride-share companies like Uber have expressed interest in the technology.
Making driving easier also has the potential to hurt public transit and change how traffic operates because of lower speeds, so governments need to start thinking about policy for driverless cars before they become common, transit advocates say.
“If you can sleep in the back of your car … people will drive more,” said Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, introducing a panel on driverless cars last week at Illinois Tech. “What will that mean for cities?”
DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman, who was on the panel, said that one of the costs of driving is being unproductive — other than getting to listen to music or use a speakerphone. With autonomous vehicles, “suddenly that changes,” he said.
Panelist Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, envisions autonomous cars as complementary to transit, with shared vehicles serving the “last mile” home after a train lets a rider off at the station. Policies that promote using driverless cars as shared vehicles could reduce congestion and the need for parking, she said.
The initial high costs of fully autonomous vehicles — which could be $100,000 — will limit their appeal for noncommercial uses and give policymakers some time to think about how they should be managed, Feigon said. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to set guidelines this month regarding the development of self-driving vehicles, said Todd Benoff, a California products liability attorney with Alston & Bird who has studied autonomous car issues.
“A shared autonomous vehicle has a lot of promise for cities, but everybody having their own is really a dystopian future,” Feigon said in an interview. “I think what we’re going to see is the blending of car-sharing and ride-sharing and driverless cars.”
Autonomous vehicles are already common in fantasy and science fiction stories — in good and evil varieties. Two heroic examples are Herbie in “The Love Bug” and Benny the Cab in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” On the dark side are Johnny Cab in “Total Recall” and the homicidal “Christine.”
In real life, autonomous cars tend to look like ordinary compact cars. What makes them work is a combination of technologies — GPS, radar and computer vision that allows them to navigate, avoid obstacles, obey road signs and adapt to changing situations.
They are extremely polite compared with human drivers and cautious to the point of comedy, said James Barbaresso, vice president of the infrastructure design firm HNTB and director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress, also on the panel. He said most crashes involving driverless cars in testing have been caused by other motorists who thought the cars were going too slow.
He once rode in a self-driving 16-passenger shuttle in France, which encountered a double-parked cab and immediately stopped. The cabdriver tried to wave the shuttle past, but it would not move. The driver got out to curse in French, found he was arguing with nobody and moved his cab.
“We avoided road rage,” Barbaresso said. “You can see that as another benefit … they don’t get angry.” He sees potential in using the cars for the elderly, who may lack transit options.
The ethics of driverless car technology is also a subject of debate. A report last month in the journal Science found that most people surveyed think that it would be more moral for a driverless car to be programmed to crash into a wall and sacrifice its passengers rather than hit a larger number of pedestrians, if it only had those two choices.
However, most respondents also said they would not buy such a car — they would prefer one that protected them and their family members at all costs. In other words, strictly ethical robot cars were for other people, not for themselves.
Commuters at Union Station interviewed about the possibility of driverless cars had mixed opinions — Frances Gomez, 48, of Round Lake Beach, who commutes to Chicago for meetings, said she would be afraid to be in one without a good driver as backup until the technology is perfected. But she could see some commuters wanting a driverless car.
“It would be like a quiet time, when you could get caught up,” Gomez said.
Nathaniel Smith, 28, who commutes by Metra to Elgin from Chicago, said he would still take the train even if fully autonomous cars were available.
“You’d still have to deal with traffic, even with a driverless car,” Smith said.
Illinois residents are more skeptical about driverless cars than residents of other regions — 52 percent of Illinois respondents would trust an autonomous car to make safety decisions, 10 percent below the national average, according to a survey by the Swedish carmaker Volvo. New Yorkers were most receptive to self-driving cars.
Of course, many commuters on Chicago-area expressways during rush hour already act like they’re in driverless cars — primping, texting and even reading papers. Let this column serve as notice that the fully autonomous car is not yet on the market, so keep your eyes on the road.
Metra’s new website
Speaking of Metra, the commuter rail service updated its cluttered website last week to make it more customer-friendly.