Undercurrent of autonomous revolution emerges on Scottsdale streets

Signs such as this one at Scottsdale’s Palomino Library could be irrelevant in 50 years, as automobile officials expect individual car ownership to decrease year after year with the emergence of autonomous vehicles. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The modern-day automobile industry and marketplace is on the brink of evolution, according to one autonomous vehicle consultant.

Imagine, rather than walking into the garage, getting into your car and driving to work five days-a-week, the average person ordered a self-driving car through a subscription service to be in their driveway within minutes.

Fully autonomous vehicles — driverless, self-driving or robotic cars — are expected to emerge in the automobile marketplace within the next 20 to 30 years, diminishing the nearly 100-year-old tradition of personal automobiles.

No longer are Saturdays spent washing the car with the children and family dog; or rotating the tires and changing the oil every few thousand miles.

Sweet 16 birthdays, a tradition for American families who see their high school student grasp freedom on the open road for the first time, could become long forgotten.

Autonomous vehicles have the ability to be customized to individuals settings, and remember the rider each time they got in. The vehicle knows where to go, speaking to other cars on the road at the speed of light, and can park itself once the rider is dropped off, or continue picking up riders throughout the day.

Will a child born in the next couple of years even need a driver’s license? Scottsdale resident Christopher West, co-founder of Jackson-West Consulting says perhaps not.

Christopher West

Mr. West gave the Scottsdale Transportation Commission a lengthy presentation on autonomous vehicles during a Sept. 21 meeting. Ultimately, Mr. West’s message was: autonomous vehicles are coming, be ready.

Mr. West was not contracted by the city, rather invited to present by Transportation Director Paul Basha, after seeing his presentation at a previous event.

These futuristic cars are capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input. A handful of semi-autonomous vehicles are already available on the market, with fully autonomous vehicles close behind Mr. West explained to the Transportation Commission.

In 2016, there were an estimated 40,000 U.S. highway fatalities, 2.5 million injuries, and over 6 million car accidents — 94 percent of car accidents are attributable to human error, according to the nation’s Energy & Commerce Committee, the oldest standing legislative committee in the House of Representatives.

Over the next few decades, Mr. West says the world will be devoid of modern-day traffic and automobiles. Not only do autonomous professionals expect car accidents to decrease 90 percent — or 30,000 lives — by the year 2050, but the future of traffic lights, parking lots, residential garages, car ownership, driver licenses, and auto insurance could all be changing.

Furthermore, 2017 is being eyed as the peak year for personal car ownership; the equivalent was horses in 1920, Mr. West noted. In addition, the average expense for vehicles per year is estimated to decrease from $9,000 to $2,000, depending on subscription models that emerge.

“This is not really something new, it’s an evolution of safety features,” Mr. West explained to the four Transportation Commission members in attendance.

“These items are currently in your vehicle now, you have lane-changing sensors, cars park themselves with the push of a button. This really is something that’s come along steadily throughout the years and throughout the traditional automobile development.”

In August 2015 Gov. Doug Ducey signed the country’s first executive order supporting the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles in Arizona.

In addition, a bill titled the Self Drive Act, H.R. 3388, is working its way through the legislation process that could increase the amount of beta-tested self-driving vehicles from the current amount of 2,500 to hundreds of thousands in the next couple of years.

It passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 6, and is now in Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, according to Mr. West.

In Scottsdale, the testing of autonomous vehicles is witnessed daily. The Valley of the Sun landscape creates an ideal atmosphere for technology gurus, as there is minimal weather to interfere with programming.

Different types of autonomous vehicles, some seen with a spinning canister on top while others are less noticeable, have been testing on local thoroughfares for more than two years.

“The initial companies told us they’d be using our streets and asked us not to share that information out of the fear that Chris just mentioned,” Mr. Basha said of the public’s reaction, during the Commission meeting. “We did have multiple meetings with a variety of disciplines, including our attorney’s office. Our attorneys were very nervous but said we couldn’t keep them out. So driverless cars were being operated for approximately two years before anyone was aware of it.”

(photo by Waymo)

A split industry

The six levels of automation range from Level 0, an automobile handled 100 percent by the driver, such as a 1960s car without power-steering, to a Level 5, which is a fully controlled by an automated driving system.

The pace at which technology in this industry is moving is comparable to the smart phone, Mr. West said, noting that the current car industry is worth about $2 trillion per year. Ford believes its autonomous transportation market is worth $5.4 trillion a year, he said.

“There’s a split in this particular industry — you have your traditional auto makers, your Ford, your GM, Volkswagon, BMW — but you also have technology companies, Apple, Uber, Waymo, sort of leading the charge and traditional auto makers are playing catch up,” Mr. West explained.

Today Ford Motor Co. has the largest line up of semi-autonomous features, with over 30 options, and is expected to have the largest autonomous offering by the end of 2017, Mr. West said.

The future of the evolving marketplace might present an opportunity for the tech companies to buy out the traditional auto manufactures, Mr. West said.

“Uber’s not in the manufacturing of the car business, so they’ll have a product that can sit on an existing car or they’ve got enough cash that they can walk in and buy a GM or Ford outright, pay cash for them, and start producing their own vehicle,” Mr. West said. “Which is astounding when you think of the size of these companies.”

The autonomous consultant says Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has enough cash to buy Ford and General Motors outright; while Apple could buy Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in a “big three” value pack.

“So the second one of these car companies, if they choose, they could essentially go in and start making their own vehicles,” he said.

By 2020, 10 million semi-autonomous vehicles — Level 2 and Level 3 — will be on roads across the county, Mr. West said.

“Fully autonomous vehicles are 20 to 30 years away,” he said. “An estimated $25 billion will be spent on research before 2020; $42 billion by 2025; and $77 billion by 2035.”

There have been reports of autonomous vehicle accidents, one happening in Tempe this year. With the increase of legislation and testing of autonomous vehicles, the regulations they follow might have the same standards that regular cars have.

“The key caveat with that is they don’t have to have the same safety standards as ones we’re driving,” Mr. West noted. “For instance, they could put a vehicle on the road that has no steering wheel, no gas peddle, no way to interact or reaction, should something go wrong.”

(GIF by Waymo)

Local-level testing

The city of Scottsdale has companies like Uber and Waymo testing their vehicles on local roads, and there could be many more, Mr. Basha says.

Waymo, a product of Google, started their autonomous testing in 2009, and became Waymo in 2016. They offer an “early-riders” program for people to begin using the on-demand car service throughout the Phoenix-metro area.

Uber began their self-driving pilot in the Phoenix area in February. UberX users who want to experience a self-driving car can request a ride and if a self-driving Uber is closest to you and the trip falls within an operational area it will pick you up.

“There are more autonomous companies and vehicles in Scottsdale every day,” Mr. Basha said in a Sept. 27 emailed response to questions, noting all autonomous vehicles in Scottsdale have human drivers, even if they don’t need them.

“We do not know how many companies and vehicles regularly drive Scottsdale streets — there are many. Most of us see at least a dozen every day.”

The emerging industry remains in the future, with positive and negative aspects that will be spurred from the increase in autonomous vehicles, Mr. Basha said.

“It will be beneficial to transportation departments as collisions will substantially decrease. Congestion will increase,” he said. “While fewer people will own cars, cars will be used more. Most people currently use their personal car a relatively short portion of each 24-hour day and 7-day week. With autonomous vehicles, each vehicle will be used much more of the day and week.”

Uber spokesperson Sarah Abboud says self-driving cars can make a city safer, cleaner and more efficient and affordable. With Uber’s combination of network, hardware and software, the car service believes they are uniquely positioned to lead innovation in self-driving.

A new marketplace

Autonomous vehicles could potentially spur two other markets: intercity transit, and the renting out of vehicles. People who own an autonomous vehicle could potentially rent out their vehicle to others on an hourly basis, Mr. Basha said.

“Increasingly fewer people will own their autonomous vehicle — they will simply rent an autonomous vehicle when they need one,” he said. “The advent of autonomous vehicles will likely increase the need for both intercity and intracity transit — as people will be less likely to own cars so will use transit more.

People might choose to rent an autonomous vehicle to get to a high speed rail station for a multiple hour trip then rent another autonomous car when they arrive at their destination.”

Suzanne Klapp

Scottsdale Vice Mayor Suzanne Klapp believes right now is an exciting time for transportation planners and the industry. In a Sept. 27 email to the Independent she outlined a few potential impacts autonomous vehicles could have on the West’s Most Western Town.

“It might be necessary to update all of our traffic signals so they communicate directly with vehicles. Eventually, we may eliminate signals altogether when vehicles communicate directly with each other,” she said in the prepared statement. “We may not need nearly as much parking when a car drops off its passengers and then drives far away to stand by for later passenger pick up. Reduced requirements for parking spaces will change the way urban areas are designed.”

Ms. Klapp says as residents and visitors alike alter the way they come and go, Downtown Scottsdale could look very different.

“Downtown Scottsdale 20 or 30 years from now may look very different due to changes in how people come, go and move through the area,” she said. “What about the vehicles the city uses to deliver service? Could an autonomous recycling truck roll along neighborhood streets collecting household waste? Certainly — and since Scottsdale pioneered mechanized trash collection in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps we will be the community that pioneers autonomous recycling and trash collection as well.

“Could our trolleys become autonomous? Local Motors is developing a small self-driving electric trolley that could be a perfect fit for an area like Downtown Scottsdale or the Scottsdale Airpark. The trolley doesn’t just drive itself, thanks to cognitive computing from IBM’s Watson, it can also offer tips on good restaurants and give an update on tomorrow’s expected weather.”

A view of a monument sign motorists encounter when entering into the city of Scottsdale. (File photo)

Infiltrating life

Mr. West provided a few recommendations to Scottsdale’s Transportation Commission following his presentation, mostly advising the city to get engaged and to be open with the public.

“The biggest hurdle on this is public acceptance, that’s going to be the biggest obstacle,” Mr. West said. “What you don’t want is to get to a day in two or three years when there’s 100,000 of these on the roads and everyone within the city of Scottsdale, or Mesa, or wherever, is scared to death to get in these vehicles.”

Mr. West’s recommendations included being involved with the companies testing autonomous vehicles and seeing what value the city might have.

“Ask them what they’re doing, see what value maybe to you they might have. Feel free to have a voice and speak up, be an equal partner to this testing,” he explained. “This isn’t just Transportation Commission, it’s going to be IT folks — we’re really talking about a computer on wheels here.”

With the possibility of school buses and even semi-trucks being autonomous, Mr. West expects this technology will infiltrate every facet of life.

“It’s really going to sort of impact each and every department and agency both within this city and within this state. It’s really going to turn everything upside down,” he explained. “Don’t keep it a secret. I know a lot of these vehicle companies are out there testing, naturalistic testing where they don’t want folks to know they’re out there testing and what they’re doing.”

Mr. Basha says he will suggest to companies that they do introduce the public to their vehicles, but believes driver-required vehicles will always exist.

“There will be fear-based resistance to change, which will delay their entry,” Mr. Basha said. “Also, United States drivers have had a love affair with personal automobiles since before automobiles were first invented. This love affair will continue forever. People will always have the opportunity to purchase driver-required vehicles.”

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