Self Driving Vehicles are coming, but are you ready?

 

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Barren winter trees and an eerie silence surround the desolate winding road leading up to one of the mostly highly classified areas on the University of Michigan campus. As the gate opens, and the background becomes clear, a hauntingly similar Ann Arbor is revealed. There are replicas of all distinct aspects of the University of Michigan campus including the street names, the restaurants, and even the Ann Arbor water tower. However, this city has no chatting kids on their way to class, or big M-Blue buses honking on the streets. It is completely uninhabited. As the wind breezes and the light on “State Street” turns green, a car out of nowhere comes speeding by. This occurrence could be the most normal thing about Mcity, however, at a closer glance, the empty car reveals that there is no one inside.

This scene is a reality that the public might need to accept, as researchers in Ann Arbor are quickly developing a self-driving technology called autonomous vehicles. Some of the vehicles that consumers even drive today have functions of autonomy, like putting a car on cruise control while on the freeway. However, the ones being researched at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute are completely self-driving and control all safety-critical functions for the entirety of the trip. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute was established over 50 years ago to evaluate the safety of transportation for the vehicle and its driver. The importance of safety started the beginning of the research for autonomous vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a preliminary statement of policy in 2013 focusing on the enormous safety potential of these new technologies. These vehicles will be able to communicate with each other and with highway infrastructure, increasing the potential for safer and more efficient driving. By eliminating the chance of a crash, these technologies can also reduce fuel consumption, and furthermore greenhouse gases.

But is the public ready? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites in their 2016 annual report that accidents top the charts as the fourth leading cause for death worldwide. Although much research has been done regarding the safety of these vehicles, in the 2014 “Survey of Public Opinion about Autonomous and Self-Driving Vehicles in the U.S., the UK, and Australia,” more than 46% of respondents replied “very concerned” about the safety consequences of equipment failure or system failure. These statistics indicate that a large portion of the population still isn’t convinced.

These Autonomous Vehicles are being researched at a highly classified location on the University of Michigan’s Northern Campus Research Complex named Mcity. The 32 acre simulated environment is the first of its kind to test the technologies that will pave the way for driverless vehicles. This facility provides a simulated driving environment where scientists can test the vehicles using various GPS technology.

There is a symbiotic relationship between connected vehicles and the autonomous vehicles. These vehicles are constantly communicating with each other in order to recognize and understand all aspects of the road including traffic lights, infrastructure, and pedestrians.

Jim Sayer, the director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute says that these different communications within the technology “can help reduce crashes and more effectively control the flow of traffic, which can minimize the environmental impact in fuel use and C02 emissions.”

40,000 people would have died in 2015 due to car accidents (a preliminary prediction) up from 33,000 deaths a year ago according to Sayer’s research. “Obviously that is a very disturbing number,” he says, “and we need to know what we, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, are going to do in order to bring that number down.

A 2014 public opinion survey on autonomous vehicles done by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute showed that the majority of respondents expressed high levels of concern about riding in these vehicles. When asked of their general opinion regarding the vehicles, over 55% of the respondents had a positive opinion. However, when asked about their concern for safety consequences with a level four technology (completely self-driving), over 50% responded “very concerned.”

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” Sayer recalls. “If people got the opportunity to actually test the vehicles, they’re like okay, well that’s not that bad.” As the levels of autonomy within the vehicle increased in the survey, the levels of concern for safety increased as well. “I think that they will be accepted with a slow stepped introduction,” Sayer says.

Carl Kershaw, a PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Michigan who has been working on this technology, says, “So far from what we’ve seen, these cars are definitely safer than the conventional models.” However he does stress that these are very complicated systems and there is a lot of research that still needs to be done for the long-term.

“Even today we can’t get airbags right,” Kershaw says, “and we’ve had air bags for a while now.”

Data privacy, system security and vehicle security also pose as a top concern for the public with each category scoring “very concerned” well above the rest. However, Sayer explains that if you just explain it to them [the public] it will be a non-concern. “They are willing to give up far more invasion of privacy by carrying a mobile phone than they ever do with a car,” Sayer says.

Even though there is much public concern, there is a good portion of the population that is ready to take this next step towards autonomy. Deb Stern, a local mother in the Ann Arbor area, tells how she volunteered her car in the summer of 2012 after reading in the Ann Arbor News about volunteers needed for a program at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Each participant is given a Vehicle Awareness Device, which transmits GPS location and speed data. This data can be received by other specially-equipped vehicles and can be used to warn drivers of potential crashes.

“It’s fun to think I’m making this itty bitty contribution to the whole world,” Stern says. When asked if she could see herself owning an autonomous vehicle in the near future, she says, “I think my children should own a self-driving vehicle because it’s safer to not have them driving.”

Regardless of the public opinion and whether the public is ready or not for the introduction of autonomous vehicles, they are coming. However researchers at the University of Michigan are making it their number one priority to make these vehicles as safe as possible. “The truth is, the average fatality occurs every one hundred million miles traveled,” Sayer says, “The system has to be as good as, if not better, than that number.”

 

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