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Tolling Points

On Autonomous Vehicles, Time to Start Sweating the Details

Bill Cramer

Anyone who’s followed the public trajectory of hot, new technologies could probably have seen it coming: After several years of rapid development, wall-to-wall news coverage, and hyped-up excitement, autonomous vehicles are crashing back to Earth.

The technology is no less promising, no less safe, no less complex, and no less subject to future development challenges than it was last month at this time, before the self-driving Uber pedestrian death in Tempe, Arizona. The growing body of analysis showing that an onboard computer is the odds-on favorite as a safer driver, with fewer distractions and massively faster reaction time than a human at the wheel, is no less legitimate.

But as autonomous vehicle systems begin making an appearance on city streets, we are starting to learn what complications they introduce. And now that people have seen the tragic, inevitable reality—some day, a self-driving vehicle was bound to kill someone, and some day soon enough, it’ll happen again—it’s time to start sweating the details.

Unexpected Consequences

A March 31 opinion piece in the New York Times raises some useful cautions about the sense of “bright shiny distraction” that is needlessly introducing new risks as autonomous vehicles roll out. It quotes Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the now-retired US Airways pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009 and now sits on a U.S. Department of Transportation advisory committee on automation:

“Technology does not eliminate error, but it changes the nature of errors that are made, and it introduces new kinds of errors,” he said. “We have to realize that it’s not a panacea.”

That’s not an argument against advancing technology, rather a plea to understand what technologies can and can’t do. And, to proceed with all due caution. With the enthusiasm that has greeted autonomous vehicles, the New York Times says that advice hasn’t always been followed:

  • Drivers have to understand what the technology can and can’t do. In Tempe, after the car failed to hit the brakes to avoid a fatal collision, the driver apparently trusted the system too much and didn’t intervene.
  • Sullenberger and others are concerned that federal and some state governments in the U.S. are pushing autonomous vehicles onto the road with insufficient safeguards. The New York Times says Arizona has lured AV investment “by telling auto and technology companies—like Uber—that it will not ask too many questions or institute a lot of new rules.” The U.S. Senate “is considering a bill that would exempt self-driving cars from existing federal regulations and pre-empt state and local governments from regulating them.”

And meanwhile, the New York Times states, “experts who are skeptical about the unceasing forward march of technology say fatalities are rising because public officials have become so enamored with the shiny new thing, self-driving cars, that they have taken their eyes off problems they could be solving today.”

None of this means that autonomous vehicles aren’t the right technology to be developing. It does mean their introduction has to be done right. For an example of how to hit that standard, developers and regulators could do far worse than to look at the tolling industry’s experience with interoperability of electronic tolling systems.

There Are No Shortcuts

The parallels tell a useful story: When U.S. tolling agencies began their push for nation-wide interoperability several years ago, there was strong political interest in seeing the industry succeed. Technology was developing rapidly. A great many complex questions had to be answered. Failure was not an option, and the margin for error was extremely thin.

The industry, led by IBTTA and its partners, responded by pulling together. Volunteers spent hundreds if not thousands of hours digging into the minute, granular details of how the shining promise of interoperability would translate into real-world, operational, interoperable tolling systems.

It took time, effort, patience, and money.

Gradually, the outlines of a viable system began to emerge, then take more concrete shape.

Autonomous vehicle developers have been working hard, working fast, and working well. They’ve achieved astonishing results in a very short period of time, but the urgent grain of truth in the New York Times report is that their success could become their biggest challenge, if they allow themselves to be pushed farther, faster than a realistic development cycle permits.

Because, as anyone involved with surface transportation knows, speed kills.

It is an incredibly exciting time for everyone working on autonomous vehicles. The promise of the technology is still very powerful. To continue to rise, test, take caution and test some more, there are no shortcuts on the road to success. IBTTA’s experience shows that it’s worth taking a little bit more time to get the details are right.

Don’t delay! You can dig into the details at IBTTA’s Managed, Lanes, AET & Technology Summit, April 22-24, 2018 in Charlotte, The event is just two weeks away, so sign up today!