Washington Auto Show brings Mobility Talks to Capitol Hill

Automobile manufacturers are in one of the greatest innovation rat-races of all time, a rush to fully autonomous vehicles. There’s no hiding the fact that the future of the automobile industry is evolving, and at such a rapid rate that even with great knowledge from inside the industry, my head is spinning! The old adage you’re only as strong as your weakest link absolutely plays true in this application. The technology can absolutely be stuffed into each individual car, but its only as good as its surroundings. As technology increases in our preferred methods of transit, they need to talk to each other, and their static environments around more than ever in what is referred to as Car to Car, and Car to X Communication. A combination of abilities to transmit vital information bidirectionally between your car, and the cars, buses, trains, trolleys etc around you, as well as the fixed infrastructure such as traffic lights, highway indicators and road signs etc.

Image Credit: US DOT

I have had the great pleasure to drive with various levels of autonomy going all the way back to a now very antiquated adaptive cruise control system called Distronic launched by Mercedes-Benz from nearly twenty years ago. This was a radar only adaptive cruise control system integrated to allow your car to adjust speed and distance to the car in front of you, down to approximately twenty miles per hour. That sounds like a pretty common dinner table discussion today while discussing car purchases, as virtually every automobile manufacturer offers it at least in parts of their lineup. Now we’re entering an age of surpassing assistance and going full blown accident prevention. Volvo offering Pilot Assist II, Cadillac with their Super Cruise, and Mercedes-Benz with DrivePilot give semi-autonomous abilities ranging from stop and go traffic to 80 some odd miles per hour, including automatic lane changes once you’ve indicated, but only after the coast is clear. An increase in infrastructure will allow for these systems to be taken to the next level, nearing full autonomy. Our friends at TechRepublic did a great job creating a list of each level of autonomy and how it interacts with the driver.

Level 0: This one is pretty basic. The driver (human) controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power. It’s what you’ve been doing all along.

Level 1: This driver-assistance level means that most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car.

Level 2: In level 2, at least one driver assistance system of “both steering and acceleration/ deceleration using information about the driving environment” is automated, like cruise control and lane-centering. It means that the “driver is disengaged from physically operating the vehicle by having his or her hands off the steering wheel AND foot off pedal at the same time,” according to the SAE. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however.

Level 3: Drivers are still necessary in level 3 cars, but are able to completely shift “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. It means that the driver is still present and will intervene if necessary, but is not required to monitor the situation in the same way it does for the previous levels. Jim McBride, autonomous vehicles expert at Ford, said this is “the biggest demarcation is between Levels 3 and 4.” He’s focused on getting Ford straight to Level 4, since Level 3, which involves transferring control from car to human, can often pose difficulties. “We’re not going to ask the driver to instantaneously intervene—that’s not a fair proposition,” McBride said.

Level 4: This is what is meant by “fully autonomous.” Level 4 vehicles are “designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.” However, it’s important to note that this is limited to the “operational design domain (ODD)” of the vehicle—meaning it does not cover every driving scenario.

Level 5: This refers to a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle’s performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario—including extreme environments like dirt roads that are unlikely to be navigated by driver-less vehicles in the near future.

All of the new automobiles available on the market today in the United States are in the level zero to three categories with a lions share of the manufacturers are trying to push to market cars in the level two realm.

I sat in on Senate Hearings on Capitol Hill this week leading up to the press days at the Washington Auto Show; and it seems between panel discussions from some of the industry’s leading manufacturers, and legislators that the ability to test and collect appropriate data proves to be the big how to at the moment. The American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan hopes to provide a solution for that. Having just opened a 335 acre test facility dedicated to the testing of automobile systems of varied degrees including safety systems. This labyrinth of automobile exercises may single handedly accelerate the ability for manufacturers and lobbyists to push forward the progress of autonomy in passenger cars and mass transit solutions.

Ultimately the end game of AV’s is bring not only convenience to individuals like myself that just can’t possibly be bothered by the peasant task of navigating gauntlets of rush hour on their own, but bringing the future of mobility to those who may be forced to rely on other less convenient methods of transit. The concept of a chariot summonable right to your doorstep would prove a new level of mobility for those who may currently be restricted by mental or physical disability.

Photo Credit: Bonnie Moret