Home People Are Atlanta Roadways Ready For An Autonomous Future? A High View To Where We’re Headed

Are Atlanta Roadways Ready For An Autonomous Future? A High View To Where We’re Headed

by Muriel Vega

Many of us have a certain vision of how autonomous vehicles, a smart, driverless vehicle, will look like. Whether you have your favorite sci-fi movie or the Jetsons in your mind, the technology is quickly evolving past our imagination and into the real world.

After approving regulations this past February, California is now allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads without a back-up human inside ready to jump in just in case something goes awry.

“The pace of this technology is quite dramatic,” says Dr. Kevin McFall, associate professor and interim chair of mechatronics engineering in KSU’s Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. “Ten years ago, traditional cruise control was the closest it came. For several years now, backup cameras augmented with the vehicle’s path, automatic obstacle detection and braking, parking assist, etc. have become standard equipment on even non-luxury vehicles.”

“Today, fully autonomous passenger and freight vehicles are being tested in real driving conditions,” says Dr. McFall, who has been studying autonomous vehicles for the past four years. “And GM has announced the manufacture of cars without steering wheels planned to be produced next year in 2019.” Waymo, Google parent Alphabet Inc’s division focused on autonomous vehicles, has been conducting tests of its autonomous automobiles in Atlanta, and just launched tests of its driverless truck fleet in metro Atlanta (though they have driverless capacity, Waymo trucks will have a backup human driver in the front for now).

But how will Atlanta’s current infrastructure and roadways adapt to this new transportation technology?

The city has been exploring smart city technologies across the metro area. The most dense of these pilot areas is the Smart Corridor along North Avenue, a road near Georgia Tech’s campus which will see over 100 IoT-connected sensors, research and data-collection technologies to inform autonomous and connected vehicles.

The environment within a smart city that driverless cars operate in take into account three different interactions: Vehicle-to-Vehicle, Vehicle-to-Infrastructure, and Vehicle-to-X (pedestrians, motorcycles, etc). Within that there’s a five-level automation spectrum, where level zero is the majority of the current fleet of cars on the road and level five is fully autonomous.

“Certainly there will be some benefits of eased commutes with self-driving cars where passengers can work in transit, and ride sharing will become easier,” says Dr. McFall.

“However, the biggest potential impact is when all cars on the road communicate with each other for optimized platooning and immediately start moving when street lights turn green, for example. Policies that foster development and testing of secure V2X [vehicle to everything] communication can help drive such progress forward.”

According to Marc Smart, Senior Traffic Engineer at infrastructure design consultancy AECOM, higher adoption of smart city connectivity plus the technology behind autonomous vehicles will over tie, help reduce traffic accidents. But it will take a while to reach a level five, fully autonomous environment.

“The autonomous fleet’s going to have to get replaced over time,” said Smart during a recent Technology Association of Georgia TransTech society meeting, a local group of leaders and companies that discuss the growth of this industry in the state. “Right now, Ford is saying four years for their fully automated vehicle to be ready for the market. It’s going to probably take about 40 years before all the cars we have cycle out, and we really have something that’s a 100 percent autonomous level five situation.”

“It’s a very significant thing to think about since 90 percent of our car crashes are in fact the error of the driver. Pure and simple. And if you take the driver out of the picture, you’re probably not going to have that crash. So that is extremely exciting for me,” says Smart.

While the technology continues to move forward, city government looking to make policies and regulations for autonomous vehicles may need to tread the waters carefully. Laws passed now could either encourage or stifle innovation.

“This is the hard part,” says Christian Kotscher, CEO of Atlanta-based traffic data platform MetroTech. “I’ve been in technology for 20 years. Technology’s usually not the limiting factor. It’s the policies, the laws in this case.”

Executive director of Atlanta smart city initiative, SmartATLKirk Talbott agrees that while the government should be proactive in its actions, Georgia is headed in the right direction by strategizing on how autonomous vehicles not only will navigate the roadways, but affect how business is conducted.

“It’s a little tricky,” says Talbott. “If the government is proactive with its actions, it can box in innovation before the market really starts to coalesce. What we have to figure out is more on the policy regulations and the piece I would add to that is the strategy. The airport generates something like 40 percent of its revenue from parking fees. When you now have a world in which there are autonomous vehicles, there’s no way I’m going to pay 17 bucks a day to park my autonomous vehicle at the airport, right?”

“When you talk about road building, parking infrastructure and policy, the city wants to figure those policy regulations out, and more importantly the strategy as soon as possible, which is why I love where Georgia is going. It’s trying to make it easy to explore and experiment in this so we can rapidly figure out what the right balance is,” says Talbott.

Last May, Governor Nathan Deal signed a bill that would allow self-driving cars to operate on public roads. The bill requires autonomous vehicles operators to register their vehicle with the state and adhere to certain insurance requirements — that’s how Waymo is able to conduct its high-profile tests here.

Atlanta Regional Commission Executive Director Douglas Hooker shares that both the city and surrounding counties will have to get educated on the technology. The ARC is in charge of fostering innovation to combat challenges to community development, transportation and mobility.

Hooker says these local government bodies will need to work together to figure out how flex zoning and permitting processes can adapt to the rapidly changing landscape.

They’ll also have to address citizen privacy rights — how will the city manage the data being collected?

“Now you’re using the public roadways, paid for by the taxpayer, to collect data that you’re using to advance a for-profit purpose, which is perfectly okay,” shares Hooker. “There is certainly broader societal benefit.”

All the experts agree that education must come first. “There’s a lot of complexity to this from the local elected leader side, most of whom have absolutely no clear of what they’re having to deal with,” says Hooker.

Meanwhile, local startups are also keeping their eye on how the smart city technology is evolving for better integration with their products.

“I think that things are going to be more and more connected,” says John Lauten, Skully’s Atlanta-based COO. The company produces a smart augmented reality motorcycle helmet.

“The Torros, who own our parent company, they believe that over time the personal mobility interconnect will become its own network of connections. It’s sort of a mesh networking point-to-point that allows for vehicles and motorcycle helmets and traffic lights to communicate with each other. We’re very bullish on that here at Skully,” explains Lauten.

These startups’ products may help ease the transition from our current road environment to the eventual level five autonomy that is a ways off. Dr. Michael Hunter, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, predicts that the first wave of adoption will lead into mixed-used traffic versus a full takeover. His traffic science and engineering research focuses on how autonomous vehicles will affect traffic operation and safety.

“For the foreseeable future, the most likely scenario is going to be mixed-used traffic — autonomous vehicles and people driving their own vehicles sharing the road,” says Dr. Hunter. “As long as that’s the case, I think operations, design, and safety all have to be seen and constructed around the point of view of the human driver. You can’t change the human driver.”

“Cities don’t want to start changing things to make the autonomous vehicle work better and change things to be inconvenient for the people that are driving. The autonomous vehicles instead should learn how to live in our environment,” says Dr. Hunter.

That’s where technology like Georgia-based startup Applied Information’s traffic sensors can help merge the needs of autonomous vehicles with those of standard cars on the road. The startup has created a suite of traffic-related IoT products, including connected school zone beacons, intelligent parking guidance system and connected fire trucks and emergency vehicles, as well as traffic lights, to make sure they have the right of way at the right time.

“The future of transportation is electric, connected, and autonomous,” says Applied Information’s CEO Bryan Mulligan. “And the tipping points are sooner than we think.” Their sensors are one of the pilot technologies being tested on North Avenue, and they have also deployed in other southeastern cities such as Marietta, Georgia and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

That tipping point may also trigger other unexpected driver behavior. At the center of how this mixed-used traffic may operate is the feared ‘bully phenomena’ experienced on roadways — an increase in aggressive driving around autonomous vehicles. A recent survey found that drivers will ‘bully’ autonomous vehicles on the road.

“Because the autonomous vehicles are well-behaved, human drivers often increase their aggression toward them because those vehicles will stop,” says Dr. Hunter. “If I’m in a work zone and I want to get over, I’m going to pick the autonomous vehicle to cut them off because I know it has to give in.”

This could cause major traffic disruptions in the long run.

It’s just another reason Dr. Hunter maintains that it’s important for the city and the state to keep autonomous vehicles in the back of their minds as they make infrastructure decisions now.

“It’s important to prepare. If you look at cities or states, they are often making transportation decisions for something that may not be online for five to 10 years,” says Dr. Hunter. “But decisions made today will be influenced by those technologies in 20 years. We haven’t figured out yet how to incorporate autonomous vehicles into the long-range decision process. We don’t know yet how it’s going to look like.”

Kennesaw State professor Dr. McFall agrees. “Making predictions about the adoption of new technology is tricky, but what I know for sure is that the driving license test will be very different when my children (oldest is now 8 years old) get their licenses.”

As the technology community and local government work together to move Atlanta into a smarter future through pilots, education and infrastructure updates, it will remain to be seen how the city adapts to the integration of autonomous vehicles.

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