BY KEITH B. JONES | January 31, 2019

Less than a year ago, we were entertaining fantasies of driverless cars picking us up from the airport after a long work trip, dropping our children to school as we fire off emails on the way to work, running errands for us during business hours and delivering packages to our doorstep. Less than a year ago, signs of this reality were clear and promising—especially after witnessing the first driverless pizza deliveries. But today, the promise of fully autonomous vehicles seems a little… broken.

What we were all imagining was was a completely hands-free mobility future. But following numerous accidents and fatalities from autonomous vehicles, John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, disclosed that fully autonomous private cars will never be a complete and total reality. It’s a humble (and humbling) remark coming from the head of Google’s sibling company.

Of course, Krafcik was referring to Level 5 autonomy, which is the highest degree of hands-free vehicle mobility. It assumes zero driver intervention every day of the week—or the season. Come rain or sleet or snow.

As it were, rain, sleet or snow is pretty common throughout most of the world. And therein lies Krafcik’s doubt for ever achieving fully autonomous driver-owned vehicles: the technology is limited to propitious driving conditions.

His statement is indicative of widespread decline in developers’ faith in fully autonomous vehicle capabilities. Just this week, Apple dismissed over 200 employees from Project Titan, its stealthy autonomous vehicle group, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

As far into the future as the world’s foremost technology leaders can see, sensory systems won’t be capable enough to work with 100% effectiveness (read: passenger safety) when roadways become unpredictable for sensory technology. Right now, that capability exists only in our imaginations and wishes.

But the future is coming regardless, and mobility will play a paramount role in it.

Starting today, we need to be analyzing how we can collectively incorporate the capabilities and limitations of low and mid-level autonomy (Levels 1-3) into our mobility ecosystems to help ensure our cities, infrastructure, and day-to-day lifestyles can efficiently handle a predominantly autonomous future.

USING MID-LEVEL AUTONOMY TO INCREASE EFFICIENCY

Even if they’re a far cry from Night Rider’s wily and witty KITT, tomorrow’s autonomous personal vehicles have the ability to make our mobility ecosystems much safer and more seamless.

With Level 5 being the zenith of AV technology, where vehicles don’t have or need familiar features such as steering wheels, gear sticks or pedals, Levels 1-3 offer significant degrees of AI influence.

Level 1 autonomy augments simple driving functions, such as steering and braking assistance.

Level 2 introduces partial automation to the driving experience, with the ability to steer, accelerate or decelerate, and brake automatically in limited situations.

Level 3 AVs handle many traditional driving functions, including monitoring the surrounding environment, but will prompt drivers to take control in more complex situations. Think cars being able to park themselves in a smart garage.

Currently, automotion at these levels assist individual drivers. But with shared information between vehicles and infrastructure, it has the ability to reduce congestion at the same time.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) technology is emerging as we speak. Using advanced sensory technologies like LiDAR, ultrasound, and radar, we can potentially create AI dialogue between all forms of mobility within a particular ecosystem.

For instance, a group of cars may collectively communicate speed, lane positioning, and route data between each other and with traffic signals, then provide drivers with navigation suggestions that best increase traffic flow.

By no means does AV technology stop at just vehicles. Creating AI dialogue within a mobility ecosystem includes the infrastructure through and around which our vehicles will navigate. Since the role of parking is only going to evolve and become more central in the 2020s, garages need to begin outfitting their properties with small-cell and micro-positioning technology. With these self-parking solutions in place, your Level 3 Lexus will soon be able to automatically locate and park itself in an open spot, further shortening your last-mile journey.

TOMORROW’S AUTONOMOUS ECOSYSTEM

What’s important to remember is that the perceived limitations of autonomous vehicles mostly have to do with personal vehicles.

When it comes to public transportation, it’s still too early to write off Level 4 and Level 5 AVs. With public transportation working within the parameters of a controlled network, passenger and pedestrian safety is pretty much a built-in feature.

Such is the mindset in Japan, anyway.

Despite being a global technology leader, Japan’s primary AV goals focus primarily on modernizing an already hyper-efficient public transportation system.

“[The] rollout of AVs in Japan won’t start with individually owned vehicles,” writes Samuel Schwartz in No One At The Wheel. The former NYC cabbie-turned-transportation engineer explains that personal vehicles are neither a symbol of individuality nor a transportation necessity in much of Japan. So the country’s transit authorities are directing AV technology towards busses and trains instead.

“In Tokyo, for instance, taxi use is less popular because the subway system is fast, efficient, and reliable.” The goal of AVs in Japan is to augment the public transportation system, not replace it.

Here in the States, it wouldn’t hurt to tear a page from their book while writing our own.

We have the opportunity to diversify and strengthen our cities’ mobility ecosystems countrywide by incorporating infrastructure and technology that supports Level 1-3 personal vehicles, Level 4-5 public transportation, personal-use mobility options (like scooters and bikes) and, of course, pedestrians.

Like many people, I was a little shocked by Krafcik’s certainty that we’ll never see fully driverless personal vehicles. After all, never is never certain—especially when it comes to technology.

But this is certain: whatever new innovations arise, taking autonomy in stride will help us better prepare for an autonomous future. Not just in Tomorrowland, but in the much nearer tomorrow.

FINAL THOUGHTS

– The foremost leader in AV claims with certainty that personal vehicles will never be fully autonomous.

– Level 1-3 autonomy should be the primary focus for city governments, city planners, transit agencies, tech innovators, and automotive companies in the coming decades.

– Autonomy has to suit the mobility ecosystem; it’s pointless to have advanced AVs simply to have them.

– We can create a more robust and efficient transportation network nationwide with interconnected and overlapping levels of autonomous technology.

“Ace Mobility Solutions isn’t just a business. It’s the Mobility Revolution in action.”

Keith B. Jones
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