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There are already commercially available vehicles on the road today with some advanced driver-assist features, and as technological barriers continue to be overcome, the industry is steadily working towards the introduction of fully automated vehicles capable of operating under most or all conditions.
The Society of Automotive Engineers has defined vehicle automation levels on a scale from 0 to 5, ranging from no automation of any kind (Level 0), to systems that can assist drivers on very specific tasks (Levels 1-4), to systems that can perform all tasks under all conditions (Level 5). Some vehicles available to consumers today include systems up to Level 2 that automate limited tasks such as highway driving (using adaptive cruise control and lane keeping) and parallel parking. Hazard warning and intervention systems, such as blind spot detection and forward collision warning with automated braking, have also been implemented.
As CAV capabilities continue to improve, more sophisticated applications will be introduced to the public. However, there is a risk of overreliance on these systems, particularly if consumers are not made fully aware of their limitations. This creates a risk for innovators as well. While there are benefits to being the first to market, a single high-profile incident could prove catastrophic to an individual company’s reputation and set back the industry, even if the product has a net-positive impact on safety overall.
According to polling, much of the public remains wary of fully driverless vehicles, so it will be up to the manufacturers to generate and maintain trust in the capabilities and benefits of their products. Companies have different approaches to finding a balance between being the first to market and avoiding high-profile incidents. Some are prepared to take on more risk to provide willing customers with products that excite them, while others are taking a more conservative approach.
Early CAVs will likely be expensive, and thus inaccessible to the average consumer. Because of high vehicle cost, as well as limitations in operating area of initial vehicles and liability questions, many companies are emerging with an automated taxi-type model for initial implementation, providing a service rather than sale of these vehicles directly to consumers.
Many such organizations are already testing, demonstrating and piloting CAV technologies in controlled environments that remove many of the complications that limit current vehicle range and capabilities. These include demonstration projects of use cases such as first/last-mile transit connections and small-scale circulators.
Similarly, truck platooning, where vehicles traveling along the same route travel in close proximity and communicate with each other, is being tested by the freight and cargo industry to improve efficiency on controlled-access highways. Now and for many years after the introduction of CAVs, there will be a mix of human-driven and computer-operated vehicles on the roadways. Hence, any products that are introduced must be able to detect and respond to non-connected vehicles and operate on the current roadway network.
Finally, the regulatory framework at the national, state and local level will impact the introduction timeline for CAVs. To date, many governments are taking a wait-and-see approach, and have often enacted limited-scope policies to attract innovation to their area. This will likely evolve as the technology matures and could impact the introduction timeline as the benefits and risks of CAVs become clearer.
We are in the early stages of this overall CAV timeline, with many companies testing or piloting their technology on closed course and public roads, and automakers introducing advancing levels of driver assistance tools.
A recent fatal pedestrian collision by one automated vehicle testing team has intensified the discussion and debate concerning testing protocols, artificial intelligence readiness and sensor needs.
Will this and similar incidents motivate government agencies to more strictly regulate CAV testing in the name of public safety, impact the development cycle at one or more private companies, or in general impact the CAV implementation timeline at all? The answer to that question is still to be determined.
However, this incident is a strong reminder that while CAVs have the potential to significantly improve the safety of our roadways, the path towards this outcome will not be direct and there may be times when the appropriate balance between public safety and innovation will need to be reassessed.
CAV technologies will continue to be introduced to market incrementally, as the technology improves and consumers grow more comfortable with the idea of CAVs. Optimistic assumptions show fully automated vehicles being introduced to market in the 2020s. However, if technical challenges are more difficult to overcome than expected, they may not be available until later.
Katie McLaughlin is an associate consultant in WSP USA’s connected/automated vehicle practice. Her experience includes technical report development, transportation policy research and systems engineering.
[Editor’s Note: To learn more about how WSP supports the planning, deployment and maintenance of intelligent transportation systems and connected and automated vehicle projects across the U.S., visit www.advancingtransport.com.]
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