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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

Who’s afraid of Uber’s driverless car test?

Transportation safety officials, at least some of them.

Uber

Uber’s decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators.

Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major U.S. city.

“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

But advocates of autonomous vehicles say that the technology might never have happened if companies had to wait for governments to pass rules first. With nearly 37,000 Americans dying in car crashes every year, largely because of driver errors, technologists have stressed the critical need to push forward on testing driverless cars on public roads.

[…]

[Roger Cohen, policy director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation] and Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous-vehicle expert at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, are both comfortable with the tests because of the safety drivers. Still, they acknowledged that doesn’t mean it will be collision-free. “You’re not going to have perfection. There is going to be trial and error, and it’s not going to be problem free,” Cohen said.

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven just shy of 2 million miles as of Aug. 31. New York City taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day, Cummings said. Uber declined to reveal how many miles its driverless cars have logged on public roads but said it will be testing Ford Fusions there, then Volvos. The program will be opt-in, with a select group of Uber customers getting an email asking if they want to participate. Both vehicles have been vetted on test tracks in Pittsburgh, the company said.

See here for some background. We’ll get some data on the safety question one way or the other, and while I’m wary of this it is important to remember that the point of comparison is not “no problems at all” but “the amount of problems one would expect with human drivers instead of robot drivers”. These things could experience some problems and still be an improvement in safety. Or not – like I said, we’ll find out. I’m more interested in the rider experience. How many of Uber’s customers that they have invited to give this a try will do so? What will they think, and how many of them will want to do it again? How will the people who aren’t invited to try this feel about it – jealous, relieved, something else? I can’t wait to hear the answers.

Are driverless cars ready or not?

GM and Lyft think theirs are pretty close.

Lyft

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company whose services rival Uber Technologies Inc. The program will rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., a developer of autonomous-driving technology.

Details of the autonomous-taxi testing program are still being worked out, according to a Lyft executive, but it will include customers in a yet-to-be disclosed city. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app.

[…]

The new effort is directed mostly at challenging Alphabet and Uber. The Google self-driving car program has gained a sizable lead over conventional auto makers via testing in California and other states, and it received an additional boost this week through a minivan-supply agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Uber, much bigger than Lyft, has its own self-driving research center in Pittsburgh and is preparing to usher autonomous vehicles in to its fleet by 2020.

I alluded to this yesterday. My reaction remains: Next year? Really? That’s pretty darned aggressive. It’s also pretty interesting considering that the people who are making driverless cars have been suggesting that we should maybe slow our roll a little.

Engineers, safety advocates and even automakers have a safety message for federal regulators eager to get self-driving cars on the road: slow down.

Fully self-driving cars may be the future of the automotive industry, but they aren’t yet up to the demands of real-world driving, several people told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during a public meeting Friday.

A slower, more deliberative approach may be needed instead of the agency’s rapid timetable for producing guidance for deploying the vehicles, according to an auto industry trade association.

[…]

A General Motors official recently told a Senate committee that the automaker expects to deploy self-driving cars within a few years through a partnership with the ride-sharing service Lyft. Google, a pioneer in the development of self-driving cars, is pushing Congress to give the NHTSA new powers to grant it special, expedited permission to sell cars without steering wheels or pedals.

But many of those who addressed the meeting, the first of two the agency has scheduled as it works on the guidelines, described a host of situations that self-driving cars still can’t handle:

—Poorly marked pavement, including parking lots and driveways, could foil the technology, which relies on clear lane markings.

—Bad weather can interfere with vehicle sensors.

—Self-driving cars can’t take directions from a policeman.

—Inconsistent traffic-control devices such as horizontal versus lateral traffic lights.

Until the technology has advanced beyond the point where ordinary conditions are problematic, “it is dangerous, impractical and a major threat to the public health, safety and welfare to deploy them,” said Mark Golden, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

There have been thousands of “disengagements” reported in road tests of self-driving cars in which the vehicles automatically turned control over to a human being, said John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog.

“Self-driving cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention,” he said.

There’s also the concern that driverless cars, which by definition will be connected to the Internet, will be vulnerable to malware. We’re not at a point where today’s cars can be successfully hijacked, as dramatized on a recent episode of Elementary, but it is something the industry is gaming out now. The larger point here is that our driverless car future may be farther off than we think. Or maybe it’s closer than we think. We’ll see how that taxi pilot goes.

One more thing:

Executives at Lyft and Uber have said one of the top hurdles to their success is navigating a patchwork of regulations that govern the use of autonomous vehicles and liabilities. In an effort to ease regulatory concerns, Lyft will start with autonomous cars that have drivers in the cockpit ready to intervene—but the driver is expected to eventually be obsolete.

“We will want to vet the autonomous tech between Cruise, GM and ourselves and slowly introduce this into markets,” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s product director, said in an interview. That will “ensure that cities would have full understanding of what we are trying to do here.”

Well, at least we won’t be fighting about fingerprints any more. I shudder to think how much money will be dumped into those lobbying – and possibly electioneering – efforts.

Bike safety is also car safety

It’s been two years since bicyclist Chelsea Norman was killed by drunk hit-and-run driver Margaret Mayer. The city has taken numerous steps to help make the streets safer for bicyclists. How are we doing on that?

“I personally don’t feel that the streets are any safer,” said Hector Garcia, who helps organize cycling events around Houston.

Up-to-date, verifiable counts for cyclist fatalities can be tough to obtain, but online databases and Houston Chronicle archives show that nine bicyclists were killed this year through Nov. 29 in the Houston area, excluding crashes in rural areas of counties adjacent to Harris County. That compares to 14 in 2014.

Even with the likely decline, however, cyclists say more must be done to reduce accident rates, especially inside Houston’s city limits.

[…]

Outreach to local politicians, meanwhile, has increased since Norman’s death, said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston. To some extent, the advocacy group’s growth can be traced to the attention Norman’s death and others received in 2013.

“Cities and conditions change when people get involved,” Payne said. “Cycling, civil rights, you pick the issue. Houston has the cyclists. For too long we were a highly-fragmented group. United, we are getting recognition and a seat at the table.”

The city, with some prodding by Payne and others, is developing a bike master plan. That in itself is progress, Payne said.

“The city must set goals on how it wants to evolves and come up with a plan to get there,” he said.

Change will be gradual. Bike lanes and other features would commonly be added as streets are repaired or redesigned, meaning it could be years before new infrastructure is in place. Designs for improvements to Alabama and T. C. Jester incorporate bike amenities.

Payne says progress since Norman’s death has been limited.

“While not strictly a failure, I would have liked to have seen the city council and the mayor take a more aggressive stand on issues like distracted driving, speeding and DUI,” Payne said.

Recall that Mayer and Norman’s collision had fatal consequences, based on the investigation and trial, because Mayer had been drinking, not because Norman was on a bike.

“These are behaviors which are killing very large numbers of Houstonians, mainly people in cars, and we know that we can make improvements here with a bit of courage,” Payne said.

That’s something that I think tends to get overlooked in the often-polarizing discussion about bike safety in Houston: A lot of the things we could do to make the roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists would also make them safer for cars and their occupants. That’s largely because the vast, overwhelming majority of accidents are caused by drivers. As this recent NHTSA press release notes, “NHTSA research shows that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, the critical cause is a human factor. In contrast, vehicle-related factors are the critical reason in about 2 percent of crashes.” (See this Reuters story and this Ars Technica story, which is where I found that NHTSA link, for more on that.) Anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of drivers doing the sorts of things they do that lead to accidents makes us all safer. That includes things like Complete Streets, texting while driving bans, continued education and outreach about drunk driving, actually enforcing existing ordinances like the Safe Passing law, and more. We all know you can’t fix stupid, but you can mitigate against it.

Walk carefully

Texas cities are not so safe for pedestrians. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are.

dont_walk

Houston pedestrians better cross with care. The city is the seventh most dangerous in the nation for people on foot, according to a new report from the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood safety.

Texas ranked as the 10th most dangerous state for walking commuters, with nearly 4,200 pedestrian deaths between 2003 and 2012. That’s roughly 10 percent of such deaths nationally during that time period, according to data compiled from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Although the total number of traffic fatalities has decreased nationally, the number of pedestrian deaths has grown. In 2012, 15 percent of all traffic fatalities involved people on foot.

As Congress considers reauthorizing MAP-21, a 2012 law that funds national transportation infrastructure, nonprofits like Smart Growth America and their pro-public safety allies are urging lawmakers nationwide to pass additional federal policy that would ensure pedestrian safety.

“This is about making smarter choices, investing our transportation dollars in projects that help achieve multiple community goals, including public health and supporting local economies,” said Roger Millar, the director of the coalition.

Using numbers from the National Weather Service, the reports says the number of pedestrian deaths in the past decade — 47,000 — is 16 times higher than the number of people who died in natural disasters. But “pedestrian deaths don’t receive a corresponding level of urgency,” Millar added.

[…]

There are two key explanations for the danger of Houston streets, said Jay Blazek Crossley, a policy analyst at Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that examines urban issues in the region. One is the design of city streets, which he said prioritizes speed over safety. The other is that the region has chosen to spend on toll roads over safer urban design, he said.

“Our money is focused on building toll roads in the middle of nowhere,” Crossley said. “Instead of redesigning streets with safety in mind, we’re putting our attention there.”

Crossley added that Houston has made some recent strides. In October, Mayor Annise Parker announced an executive order establishing a citywide Complete Streets policy aimed at protecting pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and public transit riders.

Dallas and San Antonio are also on the list, though not as high up as Houston. I don’t think there’s any question that the way our streets are built, to accommodate cars first and foremost, is the main reason behind this. As Wonkblog points out, cities that are safer for pedestrians tend to be older ones where the main street grid was built before cars existed, and thus were engineered for walking. The Complete Streets directive will help, but to say the least that’s a long-term fix. I don’t know what there is to do in the short run, but raising awareness can’t hurt. Ed Kilgore has more.