Thursday, September 1, 2016

Eyes wide shut about an imminent future

In my blog about Governor Hogan's announcement for a new Bay Bridge I offered that autonomous vehicles may make this question obsolete for at least as long as the current bridge is expected to survive. Hogan is not alone in ignoring the transportation revolution that will change everything.

testing how pedestrians react to AVs
In years of listening to discussions about Baltimore's future I have heard mention of autonomous vehicles (AV) only once. That was at a UDARP meeting where the always very forward looking and lucid reviewer Pavlina Ilieva asked the Sagamore planners of the AV wouldn't make much of that planned parking obsolete and to my astonishment the designers responded that they had, indeed considered this and already planned for potential other uses in the structures.

Testing an urban setting for AVs

But wouldn't the planning of the Baltimore Link Bus system, the bike network, the new zoning code, indeed, almost anything consider the AV which will come in a future that is maybe 3 years away or maybe, at the most 10?

Apparently Baltimore doesn't think so and it isn't surprising, then, that it is in Pittsburgh where Uber will roll out driverless fleet cars not in years but this month! Of course, the city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has has been involved in AV research for years.
Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years
Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet, which will be supervised by humans in the driver’s seat for the time being, consists of specially modified Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar, and GPS receivers. Volvo Cars has so far delivered a handful of vehicles out of a total of 100 due by the end of the year. The two companies signed a pact earlier this year to spend $300 million to develop a fully autonomous car that will be ready for the road by 2021. (Bloomberg)
Pittsburgh Uber Volvo 
Wouldn't it be nice if Baltimore would be such an innovator and be the city where this happens? After all we have been a city of firsts many times over. Infinitely better than being the city that's in the news for flying a secret surveillance Cessna over the city for months without telling even the Mayor? After all, we have Hopkins with its 21st Century City Initiative. Shouldn't they study this, too? After all Hopkins is involved in satellites and space research compared to which AVs are peanuts. Or maybe not, the matter is by no means trivial as this quote illustrates:
This year, an Audi executive mused upon how difficult it would be for a driverless car to distinguish between a shopping cart and a baby carriage. Delphi has reported that the systems it is working on struggle at times to read traffic lights. The problem? The glare of a setting sun.
''The bottom line is if you have a 4,000-pound car in the same space as a 200-pound human, you have to know the vehicle is going to react exactly the way you want every single time,'' Mr. Maddox said. ''It's going to take a lot of testing to validate that.'' (NYT International)
Baltimore certainly isn't the only city in the world keeping its eyes wide shut in light of a bright writing on the wall. Which, of course would give it an opportunity to do something special. Cities aren't the ones who should be interested in the technology as such (there are enough corporations doing that) but in the policy implications, in the legal aspects and in the psychology of it all.

Oslo, much in keeping with typical European urban policies of increasing the quality of life in their cities by restricting auto usage, will allow alternative transport only in certain parts of downtown. Shared AVs could become part of the mix. As I have written in several articles before, AV's can become a blessing  (freeing up road and parking space) or a bane for cities (more sprawl, because people in an AV don't care about the length of their commute anymore). Baltimore should be a player in this making sure the better option would become reality.
Automated transit
“With fewer requirements for parking and greater capacity, AVs would free up expanses of valuable land currently devoted to parking,” says Stelios Rodoulis, Transport Consultant at Jacobs. Therefore cities will need to have a clear appreciation of what land could become available, and a strong vision for optimising land use, be it for public space or commercial development.(Cities Today)
As CityLab reports, the pedestrian interaction with an AV is a largely untested field urgently in need of further exploration. Since this, according to CityLab, involves more psychology than technology, Hopkins could score especially well.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

other articles about AVs on my blogs:

The Next Big Thing will Change Everything
The Autonomous Vehicle, Killer or Savior of Cities?
Will Pods Replace Transit?