‘This is how we see the future’

Uber shows Delaware the future of autonomous cars

Date Published: 
Jan. 25, 2018

On this brisk January day, it was tough to find parking at the Delaware Department of Transportation headquarters in Dover. Vehicles inched along the rows of cars, everyone hoping for an empty space.

But what if there were fewer cars on the road? What if, instead of parking our cars during an eight-hour workday, we stepped out, and the cars then drove other people around all day long, and a car returned at closing time?

That is Uber’s vision of the future, as explained by Shari Shapiro, head of Public Affairs for Uber in Pennsylvania and Delaware, on Jan. 18 at a crowded meeting of the Delaware Advisory Council on Connected & Autonomous Vehicles.

Uber is a ride-share service operating worldwide that allows people to order and pay for rides through a mobile app. In the near future, the company believes, drivers will be optional.

Surveying the technological landscape, Gov. John Carney created the advisory council last September with Executive Order 14. If connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) are becoming more prevalent and could radically transform the world, then he wants Delaware to be ready.

“I would encourage people to consider this as a possibility. When many of us got into it, our immediate reaction was, ‘No way this is going to work,’” said Elayne Starkey, chief security officer for the State of Delaware. Now, she emphasizes education and awareness for this “new, scary and exciting” technology.

Delaware policymakers need to decide how to embrace the technology, and that research has just begun. By this September, the council will recommend strategies to prepare Delaware’s transportation network. They’ll study economic development, technology, privacy, highway safety, infrastructure and more.

The State decides who and what may operate on public roads. Carney had suggested that Delaware could be an early adopter of CAV networks, since the State owns more than 90 percent of all its roads, and DelDOT has improved telecommunications to better monitor traffic. Plus, Delaware can keep an eye on the new technology and create laws to accommodate, or regulate, the CAVs and their drivers.

Testing the waters in Delaware

The general public is slowly becoming more familiar with vehicle automation. Farmers have combines that do much of the work autonomously. New cars have mapping, self-parking and automatic deceleration if they sense a sudden traffic jam ahead. Even airplanes are mostly automated while in the air, except for takeoff and landing.

“In Pittsburgh, at the beginning, seeing an Uber self-driving car was exciting. It is no longer exciting. They are so over it,” Shapiro joked. “We want people to be bored with autonomous vehicles.”

Cars can work at different levels of autonomy, from none to a completely driverless car.

With first-hand experience as a passenger, Jim Lardear of AAA Mid-Atlantic recently rode an automated test shuttle-bus in Las Vegas.

“It was a very smooth ride, I’ll tell you that,” said Lardear, recalling that the “driver” was rated 4.8 of 5 stars.

Maybe autonomous vehicles could fill gaps in the trucking industry, or even Sussex County’s shortage of bus drivers. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s ready to test driverless school buses with real children.

At the same time, could Delaware get a jump on the competition and possibly host a pilot program?

“Delaware has to move fast,” said Cathy Rossi of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “It’s striking a difference between all of those factors.”

The University of Delaware might like to host a controlled test environment at the technology-centered STAR Campus, where students in public administration and mechanical engineering programs could study.

But Uber, Olli and Waymo (a Google spin-off) are already testing vehicles with passengers on public roads, Shapiro said. They want real-life, not practice tracks.

“We need to test on roads where things happen on a regular basis,” with squirrels, construction zones and bicyclists, Shapiro said.

If human error causes 94 percent of car collisions (which it does, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2015), what would happen if humans are removed from the driver seat?

“To date, there have been no crashes as a result of the autonomous driving on these public roads. But there will be. There will be crashes. There will be deaths,” Shapiro said. “But the question that you need to ask yourself is, ‘Will there be less than the 30,000 deaths on the streets that would [typically] happen?’”

Her numbers are modest. The CDC reported 33,736 unintentional motor vehicle traffic deaths in 2014. The National Safety Council had that number at about 40,000 in 2016.

“Why are we doing this? What’s the point? What are we afraid of?” Shapiro prodded. “These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves, beyond, ‘This is a robot car, and that’s scary.’ We have to acknowledge and appreciate that public fear, but what is our job in this room, as far as moving Delaware forward from a technological standpoint?”

Delaware has 400,000 cars registered that are idle 95 percent of the time, Shapiro said. Uber executives believe people would rely less on cars if they could get reliable point-to-point transportation. If fewer people owned individual cars, that could mean fewer parking lots and less emissions.

“This is how we see the future,” Shapiro said.

Riding in real life

Uber itself has been testing autonomous vehicles since 2015, including in San Francisco, Phoenix, Toronto and Pittsburgh.

But they need piles of data before CAVs can be released onto the roadways, even while still attended by a human. First, companies thoroughly map a test city: every road, sign and traffic signal. Cars need that baseline so they can begin looking for things that shouldn’t be in the way: pedestrians, wild deer or double-parked cars.

“If you go on the Uber system in Pittsburgh, you might get an autonomous vehicle,” Shapiro said. “[Passengers] give them the same ratings they give our regular drivers.”

“If you choose to accept, you’ll be picked up by a self-driving vehicle with a vehicle operator in the driver seat to monitor the vehicle as it travels your route,” Uber’s Sarah Abboud later clarified to the Coastal Point.

So it’s not (yet) a completely driverless experience. Having that person in the front seat may help riders feel more conformable with an autonomous vehicle. AAA found that 75 percent of U.S. drivers are afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car, although 59 percent would like to have autonomous features in their next vehicle.

One significant car collision could kill all the momentum of that research, Shapiro said. So it’s self-preservation that pushes companies to design technology right the first time.

They still do regular testing on private courses and on public roads. They’re learning every day, and they could be fully autonomous this year, Shapiro said.

Meanwhile, Uber says automated passenger aircraft are coming sooner than people might think.

In the future, Uber envisions more shared rides, automated vehicles and electric vehicles. That could reduce the stress of driving, especially over long distances. Moreover, DelDOT officials said they see better transportation access coming for elderly and those with disabilities.

But the vehicles bring a truckload of new situations: how police or insurance agents investigate car collisions; how the DMV licenses operators and vehicles; how the State collects and secures data about CAVs and passengers.

Delaware will have to proceed carefully with any promises made with companies it hosts. For example, Pittsburgh’s mayor — who first welcomed Uber with open arms — was later criticized for not getting Uber promises to hire locals or provide free rides “in writing.” States also need to consider the possible loss of traditional jobs, or lost fees, such as parking revenue.

The Advisory Council typically meets on the third Thursday of every month at 11 a.m. at DelDOT headquarters in Dover. Details, including meeting notes, agendas and presentations are online at www.deldot.gov/Programs/autonomous-vehicles.