AI in Self-Driving Cars: Deep Learning Deciding Life or Death

AI in self-driving cars

Creating a safer, less congested and ecologically friendly world is the main goal of driverless vehicles, and artificial intelligence or AI in self-driving cars is the brain behind making these modern marvels work. In order to get these automobiles on the road, the global community is doing its best to support autonomous car development. The current U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, held a press conference at University of Michigan’s, MCity in late September to announce the simplification of restrictions on autonomous vehicle R&D and testing. A bill addressing how this will be done is currently making its way through the U.S. Senate and House. Europe is already testing autonomous shuttles in some cities — driverless public transport has long been seen as a natural fit for the technology — and companies like nuTonomy in Singapore and Uber in various cities of the United States have been trying out autonomous taxis and ride-hailing options on public roads for a few years now. The inputs and outputs AI has to access just for the normal operation of a vehicle on everyday roads are vast and complex, but add to that the unique decisions of life and death put on the neural networks, and innovators are seeking ways to make those less polarizing. After all, as much as many look forward to a day when the driverless car makes traffic jams and automobile collisions a thing of the past, one issue keeps coming to the surface: what happens when an unmanned vehicle is faced with whom to save in an impending accident?

The Spock conundrum of logic vs. emotion

left and right brain assimilating the info provided for AI

Left Brain (logic) vs. Right Brain (emotion)

Up until recently — and in some cases still — self-driving cars have been seen as a thing of fantasy and science fiction. To that point, sci-fi stories have long used logic to make choices that emotion may very well undermine. Logic based life-forms and sentient beings tend to react in ways that are seemingly counter to humans, but often end up being about salvation rather than destruction. The purpose, obviously, is to show the human side of a machine or emotionless entity in a way that gets the audience to embrace the character. However, when you break down those decisions, you realize that those choices are logical, even as they tug at our emotions.

In the classic film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, as the being synonymous with bridging the gap between emotion and logic sacrifices himself for the crew, Spock opines, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” It is a logical choice when faced with such a situation — one or few lives as opposed to masses. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reformed terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day concluding that sacrificing himself to save a race he was once programmed to destroy comes from the deep learning of his neural networks. He has come to understand and care about them, and sacrifice to save is the logical choice so that the needs of the many are met. K-2SO’s going out in a hail of laser cannon fire in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story so that Jyn and Cassian get the plans to the Death Star, thereby saving billions of lives in the process is, also, a logical decision made by another sentient being. And the doe-eyed, heartstring pulling WALL-E hitching an unscheduled ride on the spaceship that has taken his beloved and suddenly catatonic EVE (EE-vah) only to discover the entire race of the planet he’s been cleaning up is being relegated to unhealthy, fat and forever lost in space drones. His giving himself over to losing his learned humanity to save them all is, once again, the logical choice. One trash-gathering robot v. the whole human race? No question.

Therefore, programming the AI in self-driving cars to react in a way that serves the greater good makes sense, right? However, road collisions are frequently one-to-one situations. They rarely enter the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” category, at least on the surface. It’s that grey area that adds an extra dimension to coming to a conclusion that makes the most sense. For human drivers, this is a moral dilemma that is only realized after much thought — weighing the cause and effect — and consideration — the emotional burden of a decision that leads to possible tragedy. The “moral” only comes into play when a person is operating a vehicle, but when artificial intelligence in self-driving cars accesses digital programming to determine what to do, deep learning comes in. Understood. Except, what is deep learning?

Teaching machines how to learn

deep learning in a neural network

Deep learning basically takes massive amounts of data, layering it upon each other to build conclusions that lead to a human-like recognition of what something as abstract as an image or sound actually is for a machine. The “deep” comes from how, over time, the levels of information gathered and how it experiences this data leads to it learning more about what it is gathering, allowing the AI to correct itself and be better at recognizing and, therefore, reacting to the input appropriately. Correcting its own mistakes, just like you and me.

Heady stuff, right? Well, these are exceptional amounts of data being assimilated, and an amazing capability that is pushing automakers and tech giants closer to creating truly effective driverless solutions. HOWEVER, it still doesn’t answer the question: what happens when a machine is faced with who lives and who dies on the road?

a car stopping for a pedestrian

Here’s the dilemma—and one we discussed in our Child Safety article: You’re in your self-driving car, barrelling happily down the street, when a pedestrian runs out. On one side is oncoming traffic, the other a sheer cliff. What do you do? If you, a human, were driving, many people say they would go off the cliff, hoping to miss the pedestrian AND the many in oncoming traffic. But, if there is no one behind your wheel, if you’re not manning it, the AI in self-driving cars kicks in and makes the decision for you. And per automakers, that decision is to save the passenger in the vehicle, not the people on the road. What would be a big “Whoa!” moment that you will live with for the rest of your life is not so for something like NVIDIA’s Drive PX. Because AI in self-driving cars doesn’t have the ability to emotionalize things, it will never wake-up in the middle of the night, sweating about the choice it makes forever. And because of this lack of a moral dilemma or ethical consideration, AI in self-driving cars is basing the decision on algorithms and probabilities, patterns of recognition that feed deep learning, not emotion. And how is all of that processing getting artificial intelligence to the right decision?

Good question. Because, when you think of it, that whole “the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few” is flipped in a driverless world. It becomes, “the needs of the ones in the car outweighs the needs of the bunches out there on the street.” It’s a choice, sure, but is it a truly logical one?

The reasoning power of AI in self-driving cars

How AI in self-driving cars may react and see things

Before we go into what kind of information artificial intelligence is taking in to help it decide who lives and who dies, perhaps we can play a bit with what we, the humans, do with the inputs we’re given.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked on a self-driving car project that included considering this dilemma and created a site that allows people to test what they would do in these potential crash situations. As you move through the different scenarios, it gets harder and harder to decide what is “right,” even to the point that you wonder if there is any “right” in these instances. And if we, as thinking humans, can’t figure out what’s the right thing to do, how does AI in self-driving cars? By taking the emotional connection to the problem out of the equation and using algorithms feeding deep learning, autonomous vehicles are able to do what they need to do in order to get from Point A to Point B, efficiently and seamlessly. Collateral damage may very well be something with which to contend, but, as automakers have made clear, the technology behind each driverless car is created to manage slowing down, averting, braking in enough time to avoid loss of life and catastrophic auto accidents.

However, it’s still a rather unique “moral” problem. From ethicist Philippa Foot to philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson and beyond, figuring out how to address this ethical issue has been a challenge. Everything about the Trolley Dilemma is based upon a series of factors you may never face. The world is moving forward with autonomous vehicles and the reality of actually having the AI in self-driving cars use its neural network to make a decision that is beyond passenger control is on the horizon. An example of a supplier of this technology is Drive PX, Jen-Hsun Huang’s company, NVIDIA’s solution offering small and large options for making a vehicle’s brain self-driving. That something like this is now available makes understanding the mechanism and reasoning behind such choices — deep learning — more pressing.

Algorithm image by Docurbs via Wikimedia Commons

Machine learning, the algorithm way

AI in self-driving cars becomes smarter thanks to algorithms. But what exactly are these? And how do they learn or contribute to the “smartness” of your car?

An algorithm is comprised of inputs that prompt specific outputs. It’s a series of bits of information fed into a centralized mechanical brain that tell it how to take that INPUT and create actionable OUTPUT to initiate an appropriate response. An algorithm is likened to a recipe—the ingredients being the inputs and the meal the outputs. It’s a helpful tool in the world of machine learning, and in the case of AI in self-driving cars, a huge influence on creating a safer, seamless experience.

How that information used to create these algorithms is truly assimilated and accessed by human beings is a concern. An example given in the article “Why AI Makes It Hard to Prove That Self-Driving Cars Are Safe” by Andrew Silver poses the worry over what is being considered and what isn’t:  “imagine if you test drive your self-driving car and want it to learn how to avoid pedestrians. So you have people in orange safety shirts stand around and you let the car loose. It might be training to recognize hands, arms, and legs—or maybe it’s training to recognize an orange shirt.”

Because algorithms use statistics to define results, they have a potential to put in or take out specific information to come to a conclusion. This incompleteness leads to a familiarity that, in instances like this, can breed danger, creating limitations. That type of rote learning can mean something as simple as getting to know a certain area of town really well while not understanding other parts at all. This would make successfully navigating those alternative roads, street signs and pedestrian interactions virtually impossible.

Difference between Traditional Modeling and Machine Learning. Image from ZEISS International

There are two unique types of algorithms used to make AI in self-driving cars effective: Computer Vision and Machine Learning. Computer Vision algorithm is the more traditional form that uses a cascading sort of learning process with encoded programming that leads to a predicted result. The newer, more innovative and precise Machine Learning algorithm, also known as deep neural networks, goes beyond basic codes and uses sample data to “learn” and assume results on what it has yet to experience, thereby broadening its parameters of output. In the case of deep learning, the data accumulated to feed those decisions goes into something called a “black box.” It holds all of that information so it can be accessed and used by the machine’s brain. However, the actual process of the inputs leading to the outputs is so intensive, comprehending what led to that decision is beyond human thought. This means that should the system react incorrectly, it’s virtually impossible for a person to take all that’s been gathered in the black box and determine what caused the wrong decision. And if they can’t figure that out, they won’t be able to fix the actual process that led to that conclusion so it won’t happen again.

AI in self-driving car as the vehicle sees it

Introduce into that deciding who on the street to save in case of an altercation. If the mechanical brain of the autonomous vehicle has input probabilities that only have a finite number of outcomes and finds itself faced with one that has never been encountered before, how does it make the decision? It pulls from what it knows, adjusting to the situation as best it can with the information it’s been given. Much like humans, actually, however with a more logical and detached view that allows that car to react in a way that protects its passenger above all else. Simple, straightforward and unfailing. Because that whole idea of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” has a lot of deep layers. Whose many? What few? And how many are affected if that few is lost? It goes on and on and on until, honestly, some sort of stance needs to be made and just as the MIT project shows, figuring out a clean, clear choice when there are so many variables involved is virtually impossible. For a machine, picking a lane comes without any baggage. But for the human at the effect of that decision? It is a weight far greater than anything a machine can comprehend. The capacity for understanding flips — people know there is sacrifice and know the outcome of that brings with it pain and confusion that must be bore. Machines only act and as much as they may or may not learn from their action, they will never feel the enormity of it.

An enduring question

It is a given that humans are fallible. There is enough data to warrant a look at the high cost of human error when it comes to driving motor cars. Something Silicon Valley is also learning through its testing — from companies like Uber to Waymo and beyond — is that people are also detrimental to a self-driving car project — the bulk of autonomous car accidents are due to human intervention. And studies have shown that machines react much faster than a man or woman ever could. But if the AI in self-driving cars isn’t sure what it’s reacting to or how it’s supposed to react, is it even possible for it to take action at all, let alone appropriate action?

where AI in self-driving cars is taking shape

A view of Silicon Valley at dusk

It’s a unique conundrum, surely, and there are no easy answers in any of this. And, so, as these various Silicon Valley giants and automakers discuss, confer, and keep coming up with such technologies as Jen-Hsun Huang’s Drive PX, deep learning of algorithms, and neural networks in general, the technology gets smarter, but the questions get harder.

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da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart: A Legacy of Autonomy

da vinci's self-propelled cart brought to life

Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled cart on display

The renaissance period is considered one of the most pivotal and culturally transformative times in history. It is 400 years of re-birth — the actual meaning of the word “re-naissance” — and renewal, moving Europe from the dark and middle ages to a reawakening of appreciation for the classics. Progress was discovered by going back to the past, embracing the long eschewed teachings of the ancient Greeks while also advancing such things as art and literature through a more realistic approach. Into this time came several amazing artists, scientists, humanists, and all-around great thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci is among the greatest of these with his extraordinary paintings, scientific research and inventions. His Mona Lisa alone has sparked centuries of speculation and wonder, but it is his sketches of far ahead of their time ideas for mechanical contraptions that some of today’s greatest machines owe their existence. One of these is da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, the very first driverless vehicle concept, which many consider the first ever robot.

The man behind the myth

one of the only known true portraits of da Vinci

Francesco Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1515-18

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 into a situation that could have easily led to his obscurity. The illegitimate son of a peasant woman and a wealthy attorney and notary in the Italian city, Vinci, Leonardo’s surname actually means “Of Vinci,” as he was not able to take the name of his father, Ser Piero. While his parents would go on to have children with each of their respective partners after him, Leonardo was the only child the two had together and was raised on his father’s estate with some of his half siblings. By the age of 15, he had been schooled in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and was showing artistic talent. Back in the day, becoming an artist was seen as a worthwhile vocation and he was sent to study with painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, in Florence.

 

da Vinci innovates in the painting of his master

Battesimo di Cristo (The Baptism of Christ) — the angel kneeling at the far left is da Vinci’s first example of the innovative figura serpentinata style

Before long, young Leonardo was eclipsing his master. While working with del Verocchio, Leonardo was asked to contribute to Andrea’s painting,  The Baptism of Christ, adding to the landscape, Christ’s body and creating an angel whose twisted pose was in a brand new style that was just being recognized in the artwork of the time. It became known as figura serpentinata and legend has it that when del Verrocchio saw what his young apprentice had contributed, he was so overwhelmed by Leonardo’s talent that Andrea never painted again.

Throughout this entire era, Leonardo was constantly drawing, writing, and capturing ideas that included and went far beyond his art. He filled dozens of notebooks with hundreds of pages of sketches and notes on human anatomy, horses, birds, architecture, scientific ideas, and fantastical inventions that were precursors to the bicycle, the helicopter, the airplane, the parachute, armored tanks — he was a much sought after military strategist and designer of combat weapons and transport — and weapons. These handwritten volumes — or codices — showed portraits beside shopping lists and in his Codex Atlanticus, the plans for da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were discovered.

the Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus as presented by Pompeo Leoni in the 1600s. The “book” is a box he created to collect all the pages. Photo by Mario Taddei in 2007

Now, 15th century roads weren’t even horse-and-carriage worthy and it would be almost 400 years more before motorized travel was more than DIY trial and error. What in the world possessed Leonardo to come up with a horseless carriage let alone a robotic contraption in a time when unmanned anything was an anomaly?

Entertainment.

A true renaissance man

Just for the record, robots or, better yet, robotics were nothing new to Leonardo. In the early 1480s, da Vinci became the military designer for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, aka Il Moro, which means The Moor due to his dark complexion and black hair. Leonardo became a huge asset to the constantly strategically vulnerable Italian city, designing countless combat vehicles and weapons, among these the first machine gun. He got the job by writing Sforza a letter introducing himself, what he could do for his region, and outlining his 11 most relevant talents with the ultimate goal of being offered the commission on sculpting a bronze statue of the duke’s late father on horseback. The letter is considered the first ever resume and worked.

Model of the robot knight based on Leonardo da Vinci drawings on display in Berlin 2005

Leonardo built his robot knight around 1495 to entertain Sforza and his court at a celebration in the duke’s honor. It amused all who attended to no end, and could sit, stand, raise its visor and its arms, and even had a technically correct jaw that allowed it to open its mouth and “talk.” It was operated via a series of pulleys and cables, making it sort of a cross between a puppet and a robot, but nothing like it had been seen at that time and it amazed everyone.

Twenty years later, Leonardo did it again with a robot lion presented to the newly crowned King of France, Francois I, by one of da Vinci’s greatest patrons, Giuliano de’ Medici. The lion was noted as having “moved from its place in the hall and when it came to a halt its breast opened, and was full of lilies and flowers.” The symbolic gift married both the icons of Florence — the lion — and the fleurs-de-lis of France — lilies.

In preparation for a renaissance festival around the same time as he created his robotic knight, Leonardo began sketching something that would delight children and fair goers. He drew up plans for an autonomous vehicle that would move through the festival on its own and be programmed to steer itself. da Vinci’s self-propelled cart — also known as “da Vinci’s Fiat” — had no seat, so ferrying passengers didn’t seem to be his goal, and the sketches showed no clear way to make it actually work. The idea stayed on the page and was puzzled over for centuries without anyone able to determine how the model would operate. And so, like so many of his sketches and plans, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart remained a beautiful, inspiring piece of art for centuries.

Until…

Cracking the da Vinci self-propelled cart code

da vinci self-propelled cart

Original sketch of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, aka “da Vinci’s Fiat”

Interest in da Vinci’s self-propelled cart was sparked in 1905 when Girolamo Calvi, an Italian intellectual and avid da Vinci fan, discovered the drawing. He nicknamed it “Leonardo’s Fiat” and enlisted the aid of international scholars to figure out the device. Almost another century would pass before the ancient sketches would be figured out.

For centuries, the greatest brains had noticed, but been unable to figure out the reason for the coiled springs in the drawings. Then in 1997, experts at The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, now known as Museo Galileo, revisited da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and realized it worked like clockwork. The car worked via a cog-and-gear system with the coiled springs serving as the propulsion. It was basically a giant wind-up toy with springs hidden in the drum system under the vehicle, and set running by winding them up and letting go, something that could be done by letting go of a string or rope from a distance to make it seem as if the cart had started on its own. It was possible to pre-program steering of the vehicle by placing pegs into a series of notches. da Vinci had thought of everything, even the road system of Florence, which was predominantly one-way. The self-propelled vehicle, therefore, was only able to make right turns in keeping with Florence’s infrastructure.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart model

Leonardo da Vinci self-propelled cart at the exhibition “Da Vinci – An Exhibition of Genius” in the Macau Tower, Macau. Photo by xiquinhosilva

By 2004, two different models of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were built — one to the specifications of Leonardo’s original design of 1.68 meters (5 feet 6 inches) long and 1.49 meters (4 feet 11 inches) wide, and another at ⅓ scale for demonstration. This was done to mitigate risk, because once the brake was released on the model, the cart was capable of “motoring” 40 meters (130 feet). Because engineers wanted to truly prove the invention could be made, they used building materials that would have been readily available to the innovator at the time, which were various woods. Heavy, strong and immensely powerful, da Vinci’s cart was a rousing success and proved that his vision not only for motorized, but autonomous travel was real, and establishing him as the first person to invent driverless transportation.

Intrigue and influence beyond imagining

Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions have long been sources of inspiration and research, prompting several engineers and aficionados to build his ideas to varying degrees of success. His elaborate designs and meticulous notes are stuff of legend and constant speculation. The armored tank he sketched, for example, had a fatal design flaw — it’s wheels rolled toward each other, meaning it would be impossible for it to ever move. Because of his brilliance and immense attention to detail, no one believes this was done by accident. Many see this as his way of ensuring one of two things: 1) that the war machine was never made (at heart, da Vinci was a pacifist) or 2) that his competitors would never be able to duplicate it.

a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci showing "mirror writing"

An example of Leonardo da Vinci’s “mirror writing”

This exquisite study in subterfuge is best seen in da Vinci’s handwritten notes themselves. He got into the habit of writing everything backwards to keep his ideas secret. Known as Mirror Writing, this threw off everyone including the commissioner hired by the Austrian Empire in 1815 who was charged with reclaiming and redistributing the various pieces of art Napoleon and his troops had commandeered and kept in the Louvre since his conquest of Milan back in 1796. Because of the right-to-left style of the Codex Atlanticus, the commissioner was about to just leave it in the Louvre rather than try to return it to a native country, because he just thought it was some sort of Chinese manuscript.  However, the commissioner for the Pope, Antonio Canova, who was on hand to help with the distribution of works, noticed what it was and told him to give it back to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Italy, the conservatory to which it was bequeathed in 1637.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart is said to have inspired the rover

An artist’s rendering of Mars Exploration Rover

From Mona Lisa and the Vitruvian Man to his flying machine and armored tank, the great inventor, artist, scientist and thinker has influenced almost every facet of art/engineering/science/philosophy. Many see a distinct resemblance between da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and the Mars Land Rover.  Many of his inventions are still used today, some of which you may not even know originated with him. The same guy who painted the enigmatic Mona Lisa, encoded Last Supper and spent countless hours dissecting human corpses to better understand anatomy for his art and science, also created the ball bearing, practical parachute, diving suit, double hulled ship (if the Titanic had one of those, it would still be floating today), and perfected the scissors and printing press. All have changed the face of technology and influenced progress today, but it is, arguably, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart that set the most extraordinary precedence. And as the world of self-driving vehicles continues to expand, the future this true renaissance man envisioned becomes a long-awaited reality.

 

 

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Child Safety in a Self-Driving World

getting ready for child safety in self-driving cars

When the automobile was first invented, protecting the driver—let alone the passenger—wasn’t a consideration. So, it’s no surprise that child safety in a motor vehicle was non-existent. Nowadays, there are stringent rules covering virtually every aspect of child passenger safety. These range from which type of car seat to use for different stages of physical development to where little ones are allowed to sit. With self-driving cars on the horizon, one wonders how autonomous vehicle makers will protect these unique passengers.

Historical automobile-based child safety concerns

CDC child injury fatality statistics

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transportation is the number one cause of injury deaths for children ages 0-19, with the highest rate of fatalities suffered as occupants in an automobile. With human error the main cause of car deaths, many look toward the adoption of autonomous vehicles as a way to significantly reduce traffic incidents. The focus of innovation, however, has largely been on the general maneuverability and safety of these cars on the road. Situations have recently occurred that call into question the viability of auto-pilot/self-driving systems in case of unforeseen circumstances, but here, again, the problems have largely been human fallibility, not mechanical.

First, let’s take a look at how this dilemma has been faced from the beginning.

The genesis of automotive child safety

a look at child safety in the early daysRegardless of early attempts in the late 1700s, the car was first truly made viable in the late 1800s. There were no traffic lights and stop signs on the road; no windows or seat belts in automobiles. Collision avoidance systems were relegated to horns or shouting out to pedestrians, “watch out!” Brakes were rudimentary hand affairs similar to that in bicycles—and some cars didn’t have brakes at all. Getting the public to embrace this new form of horseless carriage and deal with the fallout from accidents or breakdowns were already a challenge. Focusing on child safety, specifically, didn’t come into play at all.

By 1933, however, it became apparent that some sort of child restraint system had to be put into place to address the unique needs of securing kids in cars—lap belts weren’t cutting it. This was seen more as a convenience rather than protection—keeping fidgety kids in place and where parents could see them. The evolution of child passenger safety went through everything from fully-reclined seats to backseat playpens.

Then in 1962, two different people came up with ways to revolutionize child safety seats— Jean Ames created the first back-facing/y-shaped car seat over in Great Britain while Leonard Rivkin, an American children’s furniture store owner from Denver, fashioned a forward facing solution in Colorado. The Ames design is closest to the rear-facing car seat used today, but these two started automakers and consumers down the road to requiring children to have specially made equipment to keep them safe in motor vehicles. Although there have been a few unique spins on how to keep kids protected in cars since then—Ford Motor Company introduced the Tot Guard in 1973, a sort of plastic encasement with a pillow on the top to protect the child’s face should they jerk forward in an accident—child passenger safety has advanced significantly.

Child safety today

Today, there is a plethora of OEM and aftermarket child safety features available on the market that go far beyond the basic seat belt or child restraint. In general, these include the following solutions.

Child Safety Locks

Back doors

For the most part, child safety locks on backseat car doors can be turned on manually by pushing a lever or button on the side of the left and right side doors. Once initiated, it is impossible for backseat passengers to open the door from the inside.

Windows

Located on the driver’s side armrest are the buttons for the automatic windows and door locks. There is also a control called the driver-operated window disabler, which allows the driver to lock all passenger windows.

Anti-Pinch Automatic Windows

Newer windows have an express roll-up feature—with one push of a button, the windows rise to close without having to hold the controls down. When obstacles are in the way, however, the window continues going up and kids have come away with hurt hands, bruised heads and more due to getting whatever caught in the opening. The anti-pinch feature detects even the slightest pressure and immediately halts the upward movement of the window and takes it down, automatically.

child safety around the worldInfant/Child Safety Seats

Arguably the most familiar of child safety features, the car seat has grown from optional to mandatory over the years. As mentioned, there are regulations on the kind of seat to be used for which stage of development, where they must be placed in the car and are available both as aftermarket solutions and, in the case of Volvo in particular, OEM. They are credited as the single most effective protection for children in case of an accident when installed and used correctly.

The LATCH Program

LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, which was federally mandated in the U.S. in 1999. The legislation requires cars to install hardware that makes it easier to “latch” a child protective seat properly and securely. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates LATCH equipped vehicles based on the ease with which parents can install car seats with the features provided. In some cases, it’s easier to put a child safety seat into cars that don’t have LATCH systems due to a variety of factors, so a low rating doesn’t mean there will be an issue with the seat itself.

Smart Airbags

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated the installation and use of airbags back in 1994. Located on the driver and front passenger side of a vehicle, they are activated during a collision via a variety of sensors. Unfortunately, because of where children’s heads are situated when sitting in the front seat, passenger side airbags can cause injuries and, even, fatalities. This led to the rear seat requirement for kids under a certain height and weight.

Smart airbags have additional sensors that can determine where a passenger is sitting in relation to where the airbag will deploy. These sensors are known as seat occupancy detectors or occupancy classification sensors (OCS). The capability ranges from releasing the airbag with less pressure than it normally would to accommodate certain passengers to not activating at all for the same reason.

Transmission Shift Interlocks

Children reaching over and shifting a car from park into a gear when the motor is running has become common. The transmission shift interlock stops that from accidentally happening by communicating with the brake. If the brake is engaged, it is possible to move from Park to a gear. However, if the brake is not pressed, shifting is halted.

The new normal of child safety

OEM solutions for cars are now the norm and constantly innovating to keep up with the changes in an already advancing market as well as there being a variety of aftermarket products available at retail for installation. Some automakers have models that come already equipped with car seats for child passengers, taking the guesswork out of installing them—most accidents involving young occupants occur because either the child wasn’t strapped in or the car seat wasn’t secured correctly. Volvo, in particular, has established a robust child safety program that has become more extensive and innovative through the decades. It stands to reason considering it was a Volvo engineer who created then perfected the 3-point shoulder belt.

Wellcome Library, London. Colour Lithograph by Peter Huveneers, via Wikimedia Commons

Innovative solutions to new child safety concerns

Once upon a time, getting fingers caught in a car window or door, running out into the street without looking or not being secured in the car seat were the most common concerns with kids and motor vehicles. Now, things such as being backed over because the driver can’t see a child and being forgotten or left unattended in a vehicle are becoming familiar fatalities.

To battle blind-spot issues, proximity sensors are installed in pretty much all connected cars and can “see” an obstacle in front or behind, signaling the driver when an obstruction needs to be avoided.

Forgetting children in cars or leaving them unattended is another matter and has become more of an issue that, sadly, owes a fair amount to the requirements of where and how to place a car seat. Recent incidents have led to tragic circumstances—due to both overt heat and cold. While the first response is that these are cases of child abuse, as more and more of these come up and show themselves to have no set socioeconomic, gender or racial bias, it’s become clear there is far more to this phenomena than simple child neglect.

Due to the concerns about airbag injuries, installing rear facing carseats in the backseat is required for the protection of children and they work. Once a child is strapped in, however, he or she is virtually invisible to the driver unless a backseat baby mirror has been installed. There is a feeling that this “out of sight, out of mind” dynamic of a rear-facing car seat coupled with stress, change in routine and a variety of factors that can lead to distraction contribute to these incidents. In response, everyone from concerned fathers to inventive kids have begun working on solutions to prevent this anomaly from continuing to happen. Child safety advocates are also pushing for—and getting—products that will stem this epidemic.

Car seat manufacturer, Evenflo, has created the Sensorsafe, a device that clips onto a child’s car seat chest buckle and comes with a dongle that plugs into the automobile’s on-board diagnostic (OBD) system. This allows the seat to wirelessly communicate with the vehicle, which then sends an alert to the driver either when the car turns off or the child unbuckles his or herself from the seat.

Other companies are presenting aftermarket wireless proximity sensors as well. The NHTSA put out a report in 2012 on the technologies available to help monitor children in cars and prevent leaving them behind. However, the organization discovered many of these are inconsistent and rely too heavily on caregivers, which does not alleviate the issue of distraction. Safety groups claim the best defense is education and recommend these quick, easy, no- to low-tech reminders:

  • Place your child’s stuffed animal beside you in the front seat as a reminder that they are in the backseat
  • Sit a purse or cellphone on the backseat beside the child’s car seat, forcing you to have to go back there and get it
  • Set up a daily reminder on your phone to check the backseat, ask if the child was dropped at daycare or whatever will help you remember to check the backseat
  • Put a large, obvious sign on your dashboard that says, “Remember to check the backseat for kids”

As of 2015, 36 states have laws either enacted or pending against leaving kids unattended in cars, according to kidsandcars.org. In addition, several states have or are considering what are called “good samaritan laws” on the books to protect those individuals who break into a vehicle to save an unattended child or passenger.

This leads to the question of the legality—and, perhaps, morality—of allowing children in driverless vehicles without a licensed driver inside—what if the technology goes awry and he/she can’t get out? And what if the car comes upon a “kill or be killed” situation as it’s ferrying a kid?

What to do when faced with the general “lesser of two evils” scenario is already sending autonomous car manufacturers scrambling for answers to what is known as The Trolley Dilemma.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem by Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, noted philosopher (and granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland), Philippa Foot, presented a unique conundrum to shine the light on “ethical propositions and reactions”—basically, what drives people’s decisions. Called The Trolley Dilemma, it goes like this: you’re driving a trolley down the track and see five workers on the rails in front of you. You try to stop, but the brakes fail and you will hit them. You see a switch to another track, but see another worker on that one. Throwing the switch avoids the five, but kills the one. Not throwing it, saves the one, but kills the five. What do you do?

Most people answer they would sacrifice the one to save the five. The greater good, as it were. This is called utilitarianism—your actions are right if they benefit the majority. Okay.

But then ethicist, Judith Jarvis (JJ) Thomson, took it further: you’re standing on a bridge over the trolley track and see five workers below. A trolley is coming, but can’t brake, surely hitting and killing them. Standing beside you is a person whose girth would stop the trolley if you push them onto the track, causing their death, but saving the five. What do you do?

In this scenario, the majority of people say they would have to let the 5 die. But what’s the difference between this and the other? It’s believed that having a hand in the actual demise of the one person as opposed to simply shifting the track and feeling that worker may actually be able to get themselves out of the way poses a moral difficulty.  As you can see, adding more complexity or shifting the factors gets you wondering if saving someone is really so black and white. From Philippa Foot’s “5 on one track, 1 on another, switch” came JJ Thomson’s “1 heavyset on a bridge can save the 5 on the track,” which, in turn, led to “1 heavyset on a bridget put the 5 on the track to be killed” and creating “the fat villain” perception. After that was Michael Costa positing “5 on a track, 1 on the other, car switched only to loop around and kill the 5”and, finally, Karl Unger’s even more layered, “5 on a track, 1 at his house sleeping in the yard, 2 trolleys collide to save the 5 only to have 1 derail and kill the 1 man in his yard.” The more probabilities you conceive, the more difficult it becomes to decide what is “right.” Hence, The Trolley Problem.

This is what self-driving car manufacturers are up against. If an autonomous vehicle is driving down a road that has a cliff on one side and a sheer rock face on the other and a child runs into the street after a ball, should the car go straight and save the passenger, but kill the child, or swerve left or right, saving the child and killing the passenger?  If left to their own devices, most people say, “Save the child.” However, car manufacturers disagree.

The Trolley Problem highlights the biggest question surrounding the long-term safety of autonomous vehicles in general: the reaction of the automobile to the outside world, and the need to choose between the life of the passenger(s) and either the pedestrian(s) or those in other cars. Unlike the people posed with the conundrum, however, machines don’t have the ability to make a moral decision. They can only react as they are programmed to do. With that in mind, Mercedes-Benz announced that its self-driving cars will protect the occupants in those rare situations. The rationale is that there are already checks and balances in these vehicles to prepare for potential collisions without loss of life. Unfortunately, things are bound to happen, so it’s vital for a decision to be made and fatalities will occur, although with less frequency than they are now. Daimler is willing to assume the risk—as are Audi and Volvo—in an autonomous car accident. But what if the child is not the one on the road, but the one in the car? What kind of checks and balances of child safety are being taken for them?

Preparing for child safety in autonomous vehicles

Currently, there appears to be very little focus on children in the autonomous space, although questions of whether kids should be allowed to be transported in a driverless vehicle by themselves have come up. After all, if he/she is not equipped to grab the wheel and jump in to deal with a difficult road situation beyond the car’s control, what does that mean for their safety and the safety of others?

Whether or not minors should be allowed to travel alone in self-driving cars has 58% of those polled against, 32% for, and 10% undecided. But, consider this: it is an international law that children under certain ages must be secured in a car seat of some sort under the age of 12 or within a certain height and weight range. It also states they can’t sit in front near passenger side airbags and that, in most regions, they can’t be left unattended in a car. If an average sized 8 year-old is traveling alone to a soccer practice in an autonomous car, based on today’s laws that 8 year-old needs to be strapped into a booster seat, in the back of the car, and never left alone due to concerns over hyper and hypo-thermia issues. It begs the question: will those regulations change once the cars, themselves, are running unattended?

Keeping kids safe in driverless cars

Autonomous vehicles are not just coming, they’re virtually here. The more they become the norm, the more this question will need to be addressed. And, as of today, there is no easy answer or solid solution.

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The Autonomous Vehicle: A Look Through History

the autonomous vehicle in action

The wave of the future

The autonomous vehicle, or self-driving car, has become the focus of the automotive world. More and more, you hear that the connected car is the answer to a variety of transportation ills. From Google to Volvo to Ford to Uber and Lyft, the industry of moving you from one place to another is working feverishly to make the once science fiction dream of a driverless vehicle a reality. However, this seemingly 21st century innovation has not only been in people’s minds for centuries, but attempts and working prototypes have been pursued across the ages.

What exactly is an autonomous vehicle?

The autonomous vehicle label has become quite the buzz. But what makes a regular, everyday car into a self-driving connected car? An autonomous vehicle is any car that drives itself through a set of computerized controls hardwired into the automobile’s brain or electronic control unit (ECU). The idea has been the stuff of dreams since as far back as the great Leonardo da Vinci with his horseless carriage idea, an invention meant as a novelty to surprise and delight attendants of festivals during renaissance times that would take centuries to figure out how to build.

While there have been several attempts throughout the years to make a self-driving, fully autonomous car come to life, success has been elusive. However, the interest has never wavered and the automotive world and general public became even more energized with a look into the future that sent minds reeling at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

General Motors and dreams of innovation

World's Fair map

Road map for 1939 New York World’s Fair

General Motors (GM) is no stranger to vehicle innovation. It was the first automaker to envision a type of autonomous technology with the presentation of a computerized navigation system for its cars known as Driver Aid, Information and Routing System (DAIR) back in 1966. The ambitious yet unwieldy invention would lead to the creation of OnStar in the 1980s. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that GM presented their idea of the self-driving car at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

The Futurama bird's eye view

The Futurama, GM’s vision

The tagline of the storied pre-World War II extravaganza was “The World of Tomorrow.” Hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the extraordinary promise of a unique and technologically advanced horizon shown throughout the fairgrounds. GM’s pavilion featured the most popular attraction called The Futurama, a ride that took visitors through what life would be like in the year 1960. While the exhibit was more about urban planning and creating a highway system—which wouldn’t become reality until 1956—tiny radio controlled cars that automatically kept their distance from each other were presented on the roads, a precursor to adaptive cruise control and autonomous vehicle technology. This future vision was crafted by mercurial theatre and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes. While 1960 has come and gone and the glorious, smooth driving fully autonomous future has yet to be realized, the commitment to and belief in a driverless world is stronger and more pervasive than ever.

Why self-driving car technology matters?

Driving a car is essential to many people’s lives. Getting behind the wheel of an automobile and transporting yourself, others and supplies or equipment for work, play or charity, have led to the continued—albeit sometimes shaky—growth of what is now a $9 trillion+ automotive industry. The automobile has been in consumer use since Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler created their vehicle empire in 1895 then made even more accessible when Henry Ford turned what was basically a luxury item into something the masses could afford. These horseless carriages have dominated the transportation industry ever since and incorporating autonomous technology to create self-driving cars has been a goal that may well have been prompted by Leonardo’s self-propelled carriage over five centuries ago.

The “Linrrican Wonder,” a 1926 Chandler rigged with a transmitting antenna, became the first documented case of a “driverless car” that same year. It “drove” through the streets of New York City while controlled by a follow vehicle. Having a tracking car may seem to negate the fully autonomous goal of a driverless vehicle, but the Linrrican Wonder maneuvered on a public road in the most populous city in America even back then, giving hope to the automotive industry of a future it continues to fervently pursue to this day.

Huge strides continue to be made in the world of self-driving cars which are propelled by 3 major issues on the road today: traffic congestion, road fatalities and environmental impact. But will driverless cars really alleviate all of these problems?

Alleviating gridlock

autonomous vehicles to help with gridlock

Photo By Hikosaemon via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a two-pronged effect here with autonomous vehicles. Shared self-driving cars lead to less automobiles on the road. Also, operator error causes the bulk of traffic accidents which then leads to even more traffic congestion—slowing down to rubberneck, lane closures, etc. Autonomous vehicle technology incorporates such systems as collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control to create both safer conditions and smart distance between cars.  These two together allow the vehicles to keep pace with and from each other in ways that keep the flow of traffic consistently moving.

Staying alive on the road

autonomous vehicles to address safe driving

2015 saw 35,200 car-related deaths in the U.S. alone. This staggering number has prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to push for policies that more actively regulate self-driving car research and development. Human error accounts for 94% of all fatalities on the highway and implementing innovative vehicle technology in the form of fully autonomous smart cars is felt to be the answer. Again, collision avoidance systems play an integral part in keeping passengers safe and lowering traffic fatalities and accidents in general.

Lower emissions and better fuel efficiency

autonomous vehicles programmed for better fuel efficiency

An autonomous car is designed to be more fuel efficient not only by the mere fact that many use alternative fuels, but the way they travel in conjunction with other vehicles and on the road in general. These vehicles are built to move in such a way that they make the best use of their fuel and brake/accelerate more strategically, thereby reducing whatever gas emissions they produce or drain on a power cell. Traditional and adaptive cruise control (ACC) acts as a strategic partner in supporting this by automatically maintaining an ecologically friendly rate of speed.

The ins and outs of self-driving car technology

What makes a self-driving car drive itself? It’s a combination of a variety of interfaces and connections. Per engineering professor, Sridhar Lakshmanam of University of Michigan—Dearborn, three things are needed to make an everyday vehicle successfully navigate a public road autonomously: a GPS, a system that reads road conditions, and a processor that takes all of that data and turns it into action.

how an autonomous vehicle works

The technology behind autonomous vehicles

The GPS needed is pretty much the same type of system used today. It provides a basic view of maps and where the car can go. Radar and lidar sensors are instrumental in the system that can see road conditions as are on-board cameras.

Radar uses radio waves to distinguish what is going on around the car while a lidar sensor uses lasers to detect the environment, obstacles and more by sending out a series of light pulses at specific intervals to pick up external information. These combine with the on-board cameras to take all of the information of what is going on around the vehicle—the environment and dynamic situations—and send it to the brain so the car can actually react—brake, accelerate, turn, etc.—accordingly.

On-board cameras also contribute to the successful operation of autonomous vehicles. These visually capture the conditions and potential hazards of the road in real time and process that information through sophisticated computer software. The car’s brain then takes that and

Part of this smart communication is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) interaction. The ability for cars to speak with each other will help in making this driverless future a safe reality. Per the National highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) one automobile can relay various “important safety and mobility information” to another, thereby supporting the three goals mentioned above: alleviate gridlock, save lives and lower emissions. And with safe future comes changes to government.

The ups (and downs) of the autonomous vehicle

Due to the nature of less human interaction,  an autonomous vehicle means fewer parking and moving violations, which provide a good chunk of money into local and state agency coffers. However, the safety and strengthening of the transportation systems save government and taxpayers money and lives. The Brookings Institute breaks it down as follows:

  • An estimated $10 billion per year saved by taxpayers due to the public shouldering the bill for seven percent of vehicle crash costs
  • A savings of $100 billion per year due to the elimination of congestion, damages to infrastructure and resources spent on road improvement.
  • Cutting travel times by sending vehicles to better road options which saves on the cost of fixing roadways and bridges
  • An overall estimated savings of $211 billion a year to state, local and federal governments

With all of this possibility, however, it begs the question: just how ready is the public to hand over the controls they’ve come to know with their automobiles?

The steering wheel (gear shift, pedals…): to be or not to be?

will autonomous vehicles need what drivers are used to?

As mentioned, the motor car is the most influential mode of transportation in the world. It is a staple of modern life and a symbol of autonomy, even in its purest form. Part of that comes from the ability of everyday humans to have total control over their automobile by being able to steer it themselves and operate the different gears and pedals to make it run. But in a fully autonomous, self-driving car, is it really necessary to have all of those accouterment?

Per a recent Kelley Blue Book poll, most Americans couldn’t even begin to imagine embracing a fully autonomous vehicle—called a Level 5 by both NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book. 80 percent of those polled believe human drivers need to have the ability to operate their car and 64 percent claimed they need to be the ones driving their automobiles, not some technology. While there are ranges of feelings about actually using the self-driving capability—short jaunts were felt to need operator control while autonomous vehicle technology would be welcome on long road trips—the space for human intervention in the midst of unforeseen circumstances is still felt to be necessary.

Different levels of autonomy

As mentioned, both the NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book have identified 5 stages of autonomy for cars. Both adhere to the levels as outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International. They breakdown as follows:

Level 0: No Automation

The human driver has full control of the car, even if there are upgrades and technological advances in the vehicle. The person behind the wheel is the one who reacts to every situation.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Most of the operation is handled by the driver. Some, however, like braking, can be automatically managed by the car through the data it retrieves from road conditions.

Level 2: Partial Automation

Again, the human controls most aspects of the vehicle, but some things like cruise control or lane correction are automatically handled by the vehicle as well as acceleration and deceleration based on the information gathered about the drive. The person behind the wheel, however, is expected to be the primary operator, managing the rest of the manipulation of the car as well as taking over from the automated functions should the situation arise.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Pretty much every task a driver would perform is handled by an automated system. However, here there is the ability for the human to take control when their intervention is requested by the computer.

Level 4: High Automation

There are still a steering wheel, gas and brake pedal, and a gear shift in this level, but all of the driving is automated and there is a failsafe should the driver fail to engage when the system asks for their assistance.

Level 5: Full Automation

The car is completely automated and prepared to handle all road conditions and situations that can and will arise during the ride. The driver is turned into passenger and their assistance is not requested nor needed.

As you can see, these last three levels move from minimal mechanical driver assistance—a human operator maintains control while the car has certain enhancements to help make their drive smoother and safer— into an area where the vehicle is now actually monitoring the driving environment and reacting automatically. This is a future leap that is available in limited models for Level 3 and in test phase with fleet vehicles in levels 4 and 5 under controlled conditions on public roads —Google self-drive now known as Waymo and Uber, for example.

Paving the road to the future

The road to the future

The initial estimate of when driverless cars will truly be on the road is 2050. However, with Ford embracing the autonomous vehicle movement rather than fighting it, Baidu in California, and much more, “The World of Tomorrow” may be just around the corner. The progress to a more dynamic driverless future is constant, so keep your eyes on the road ahead.

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Vision Zero: A Call to Life-Saving Automotive Action

example of what Vision Zero hopes to correct

traffic today

The Vision Zero Strategy makes a global promise of zero road deaths and injuries by as early as 2020 in some countries. The shocking rise in traffic fatalities in the U.S. makes broader implementation critical.

On October 5, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that U.S. traffic deaths had reached a crisis level in the first half of 2016. During those first 6 months, fatalities leapt 10.4 percent over last year to 17,775 and counting. The belief is that 2016 will show an even higher number than the 35,200 deaths recorded in 2015, the most fatal year since 2008. This has led to the NHTSA, Federal Highway Administration (FHA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and National Safety Council (NSC) to band together to create a Road to Zero coalition, a reflection of the Vision Zero Strategy already embraced by governments all over the world.

The commitment of Vision Zero is that there will be no traffic deaths or injuries by a certain year through infrastructure revision, driver education and innovative automotive technologies. What that truly means is more than new roads, smarter drivers and self-driving cars. Vision Zero is a life-change, not a just an infrastructure plan.

The genesis of Vision Zero

Sweden pioneered Vision Zero in 1997 in response to a disturbing disconnect it was noticing – traffic deaths are the only fatalities that are universally deemed acceptable. Human error is usually to blame for such tragedies and there is a general consensus that there’s an inevitability to these mishaps that makes them tolerable. Sweden doesn’t agree for two big reasons. First and foremost, loss of life is unacceptable in any form. Period. Second, placing all of the responsibility on human fallibility and treating it as a given that will never change is just an excuse. Shifting that thinking and looking at it differently changes the outcome – if you can never predict the human factor, then it’s the infrastructure that needs to be smarter to account for it before it can cause an accident. It’s why the basis of Vision Zero is, “In every situation a person might fail. The road system should not.”

Smarter roads are the driving factors behind Vision Zero strategy – task the minds behind these byways to come up with plans and solutions that protect motorists, pedestrians and cyclists from the risks they will encounter when traveling. Zero tolerance for death of any kind is what drives Vision Zero and it is what has led to its general ideals being embraced and encouraged around the world. And although Sweden’s 1997 goal of no traffic deaths and serious injuries has moved from 2020 to 2050, the progress the program has shown in this Scandinavian country is promising and encouraging to others.

The power of nothing

From Norway in 1999 to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in May 2016 and beyond, more and more state, local and federal governments have adopted the principles of Vision Zero as their own. Things are starting slowly with many areas in the U.S. beginning simply with stricter seatbelt laws as well as changing signage to clearly convey that the road is being shared with cyclists and pedestrians. While there has been some resistance due to the focus – make room for alternative modes of mobility to share the road effectively and create less congestion by lowering roadway access rather than broadening it – it has shown to be working, for the most part. A recent article written by Kelsey E. Thomas for the Center for Active Design website points out the benefits of what are called Road Diets, even in the most congested city in America, Los Angeles. It arguably proves that reduction, not expansion, actually does help.

Road Diets are basically street reconfigurations that are meant to change driving patterns to alleviate auto accidents. These systems are something that support what CalTrans discovered and announced earlier this year in regards to how much more congested and dangerous roads have become after adding more lanes.

Moving toward a safer future on the roads has global impact. Cities around the U.S. – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego, to name a few – and countries around the world – joining Sweden are Netherlands, U.K., Canada and more – have created action plans for implementing their zero auto fatalities programs. To do so, governments are taking a data-driven approach to strategizing. The information they are gathering shows them both the downsides to current infrastructure as well as highlighting the benefits of innovative solutions. These innovations include such things as the road diets, creating separate and completely detached lanes for both walkers and riders, and showing how certain speed limits are better for pedestrian safety than others. Some of this is in response to the rise in pedestrian fatalities, which were up by an estimated 10 percent in 2015 and account for 15 percent of all traffic deaths.

This active push for road safety also includes supporting the faster incorporation of self-driving cars onto roadways.

Where the smart car meets the road

smarter cars created to meet Vision Zero plans

a connected car’s view of a Vision Zero future

In late September, President Obama announced the federal government’s commitment to autonomous car development – prompted by the NHTSA’s findings of the 35,200 auto fatalities in 2015. This pledge is seen as a safe answer to the issues facing the world’s drivers today, because of the human error issue. In addition, the president and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx both announced the United States’ commitment to the Vision Zero concept on a national scale to coincide with the release of the report highlighting the crisis reached in the first six months of 2016. America has set the year 2046 as the goal for being traffic fatality free. Self-driving vehicles are considered the most viable answer to much of this in addition to a more comprehensive infrastructure built for road safety, not speed.

Connected cars, in general, provide a strong partner in safety with new anti-collision features and automatic pilot assistance. Needless to say, driverless technology is currently designed to be used in tandem with manual driving. In other words, turning on the system and taking your mind off the road completely is not the intent. Due to recent autonomous control accidents, different solutions are being considered in regards to full autonomy.

Volkswagen, for example, has filed a patent that would give drivers more involvement with its self-driving feature. This autonomous system enables the motorist to manually react to a situation without having to completely disengage the autopilot. This is in response to the slew of collisions that have occurred over the last year with current autonomous technology. The German automaker plans to get motorists involved with the controls of their car in order to ensure no accidents occur. And Volvo has answered the “who’s fault is it in a self-driving vehicle accident?” question that has plagued insurance companies. It has declared Volvo will take responsibility in the event of a collision involving one of its automobiles. This comes as no surprise considering Volvo’s partnership with Sweden’s Vision Zero strategy and how instrumental it is in its continued growth.

Envisioning a zero future

Vision Zero view of a pedestrian safe world

The announcement on October 5 was an eye-opening call to action that has set many new wheels in motion and highlighted plans already in progress. It shines a brighter light on an issue that has been a problem since the advent of the car. The world has been seeking ways to make a mobile world more accessible to all by making it safer since before Garrett Morgan’s first patent of the traffic light in 1923. The history of automobile legislation is full of incremental innovations that strive for better infrastructure and more user- and pedestrian-friendly vehicles. From rethinking the way we design our roads to evaluating speed limits in consideration of pedestrian safety, protecting ourselves on the roads requires a look at what, not just who, needs to change for a traffic fatality-free future.

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Automated Vehicles and the Government: Connecting Through DOT

connecting automated vehicles and the American governmentOn September 19, 2016, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) is implementing policies to regulate and support the manufacturing and street readiness of automated vehicles. This giant leap forward comes after several meetings with industry professionals, public input forums and consultations with tech companies. Called the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, the 116-page plan offers four key points of focus and a 15-point safety assessment that gives guidelines for manufacturers to follow.

Unique preparation for a new world of automated vehicles

This forward movement on automated vehicles is new for government. Traditionally, regulations and auto legislation are put into effect after market penetration of a new technology. It is a reactive, not a proactive, process. The way the current policy is rolling out is very different and something DOT and federal lawmakers are specifically highlighting in their current announcement. The desire is to encourage and manage appropriate innovation in the automotive sector to ensure the technology is safe. And safety is the No. 1 reason for this collaborative effort between lawmakers and the automated vehicle community.

Last year, out of 35,200 car-related deaths, 94 percent were due to human error. As Secretary Foxx shares in his statement, “Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken.”

Secretary Foxx goes on to add, “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.” It is a framework that innovators can follow as they are in process, rather than having to backtrack to play catch-up.

President Obama weighed in on the federal government’s decision with an OpEd piece for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He touches on the issues of safety, but also on providing mobility for those who no longer have it. “And right now, for too many senior citizens and Americans with disabilities, driving isn’t an option. Automated vehicles could change their lives,” the president wrote.

A vision of tomorrow realized today

visionofthefuture

As President Obama points out, the technology and innovation behind automated vehicles have already gone from sci-fi fantasy to fast-moving reality. The potential benefits are huge, but so are the dangers if government doesn’t help mitigate those risks and support companies as they seek to eliminate them. However, the goal is not to over-regulate, but to work in tandem with these technological achievements. It is the reason why the policy is meant to be flexible and allow for growth as the industry grows and changes.

But as excited as the administration and DOT are about the potential of automated vehicles, the president is adamant about one thing, “And make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety.”

This solution is not set in stone quite yet. The public is encouraged to share whatever questions, concerns, comments, etc. it may have about the policy with the DOT over the next 60 days. In addition, President Obama is hosting the first White House Frontiers Conference on October 13 in Pittsburgh. It focuses on new technologies and how to implement these innovations to best serve the public. It is open to everyone to come and share, learn and discover together. The conference looks at how we, as a nation, can expand our scientific knowledge, what can we learn from the rest of the world and how we can all work together to make people’s lives better. The summit is concentrating on more than the next big thing. It’s also investigating what those inventions can do to make the world a better place.

With every new day, the future is getting closer. And as it does, so too is the realization that government support and involvement during the innovation process is key to true progress.

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Self-Driving Cars on the Move: Is the Year 2050 Weeks Away?

Experts claim that self-driving cars won’t be practical for everyday use until 2050. For ride-hailing services, the projection is sooner. But weeks away? Really?

Uber ready to autonomously roll

Per an announcement by Uber on August 18, customers will be able to actually hail self-driving cars in Pittsburgh later this month. This is a significant shift from the road tests its Pennsylvania-based technology facility has been conducting. While there will be an engineer in the driver’s seat and a co-pilot by his or her side to monitor the experience in its early stages, this is a radical leap forward for autonomous vehicles.

Ford commits resources to slash decades

View of Ford Motor dealership

Ford Motor Company prepares for the future of self-driving cars

Seemingly in tandem with the Uber announcement, Ford Motor Company of America has declared it will start “mass-producing” fully autonomous, self-driving vehicle fleets for ride-hailing and ride-sharing services by 2021. The auto behemoth has joined such leaders as Google, GM, Volvo and Tesla to cut decades out of the connected car equation, creating a frenzy of chatter in the automotive community and beyond.

While these developments address the ride-hailing and ride-sharing needs of the public, what does this mean for the individual automobile owner who may be interested in buying one of these new rides for him or herself? Is 2050 a far too conservative estimate now given the current push for innovation?

Self-driving cars are nothing new

Several automobile companies have been toying with at least partial autonomy in their vehicles for some time. Tesla, for example, currently allows you to put your automobile on autopilot while you ride. Automakers such as Ford, GM and Volvo are fast at work to produce something that’s completely driverless. Needless to say, the first batch will be luxury vehicles with matching price tags, which will put them out of reach for a majority of the public for some time. But the cost of privately owning an autonomous vehicle anytime soon goes beyond the financial.

Hurdles to drive over

For all intents and purposes, the automobiles themselves are not delaying the introduction of fully-connected vehicles onto the streets. Other hurdles include insurance, safely navigating side roads with ambiguous signage, and cyber security, to name a few.

The “who” of driverless auto insurance

In regards to insurance, how would it work for a driverless automobile? Who’s responsible if there’s an accident? Recently, there have been documented cases of the autopilot features causing mishaps in Teslas and a few of Google’s test vehicles have gotten into minor fender benders. All of this raises questions about safety and fault. While Volvo has said it will bear the responsibility in collisions involving its self-driving cars, insurance companies are hard at work figuring out how to address the imminent future of autonomous vehicle ownership.

Driverless may not be suitable everywhere

As mentioned, maneuvering through the countless places where an automobile travels poses the biggest challenge for autonomous technology. Going driverless is made possible by the operating systems that wirelessly read road signs, communicate with other vehicles (V2V) and infrastructure that enables unmanned navigation. Signage for streets and highways is not universal, so there is no one “language” for the system to consistently interpret. Add to that the fact that many people live in places that have a less structured road system–farms, rural areas, countrysides– and that different areas have their own local rules–”Pittsburgh Left,” “California Stop”–and it’s even more difficult for a vehicle to determine where it’s going and how to navigate its way there.

Safety, from the inside out

As you watch the progress of the connected car over the years, it’s clear these announcements were inevitable. Progress, however, appears to be advancing faster than predicted. So how can auto manufacturers and legislators protect riders from autonomous car accidents and cyber attacks?

Currently, no one can guarantee complete protection from collisions or the infiltration of driverless technology. All the companies involved in the advancement of these innovations, however, are focused on every aspect of making the vehicles safe, both inside and out. Cyber hacking is as big a concern because accidents involving these highly-connected operating systems create risks for everyone–from passengers, owners, manufacturers to legislators–that must be addressed.

Realizing a here and now future

Maybe you won’t be able to ride-hail or ride-share a driverless vehicle tomorrow, but by Christmas 2016? Definitely, if Uber is successful. Soon after, private vehicles equipped with autonomous systems are bound to follow.

There are still bugs to work out with every aspect of autonomous driving, and fixing them is coming faster due to the heavy focus on turning a dream into a reality. Changing all the outstanding issues needed to accommodate a driverless future takes more than incentives. Auto manufacturers and lawmakers need to work together now, because the future of self-driving cars is here.

V2gov.com is your gateway to these incredible leaps in technology, how auto legislation will respond to these advancements and what that means for eGovernment. The autonomous vehicle has arrived and is changing the way we think, live and grow. Join us as we continue to follow the amazing developments in this new frontier in the automotive world and share how these three components align.

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5 Ways Failure to Meet FMCSA Regulations Could Kill Your Business

If drivers quite literally drive your business, awareness of—and adherence to—Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations is critical. This detailed set of regulations:

  • Governs commercial drivers, including bus and truck drivers
  • Governs who coordinates transport, including managers and supervisors
  • Protects goods transported
  • Protects the general public

While largely unknown to consumers, this agency’s policies are critical to commercial enterprises. With autonomous trucks and self-driving cars gaining prevalence, auto legislation is only expected to rise. So whether your company relies on a fleet of rigs or buses, it’s important to familiarize yourself with these regulations to ensure FMCSA remains a friend and not a foe.

Below are five ways that failure to meet FMCSA regulations could kill your business.

FMCSA regulations and commercial drivers

Because not just anyone is suited for the job of driving a commercial vehicle, the FMCSA enforces a host of commercial driver regulations, including those governing the maintenance of driver records.

1. Poor record maintenance

To be in compliance with these FMCSA regulations, you must maintain a driver qualification file, which includes driver certifications, licensure and coursework completion. And while no one likes shuffling paperwork, this is a critical step in proving driver preparedness.

FMCSA records are generally public. This means customers—even competing businesses—can check to see whether you’ve done your homework. If you haven’t, you run the risk of losing a client’s business and your reputation.

Failure to provide the FMCSA with required documents could have even more serious ramifications than creating a tarnished reputation. Depending on the specific document and length of time you have been out of compliance, you could face fines and/or loss of commercial driving privileges.

2. Failure to utilize the pre-employment screening program

Attention to driver records shouldn’t start after the candidate is hired. You can successfully avoid many record-related headaches by sufficiently vetting potential employees before they start.

The FMCSA offers a pre-employment screening program to assist your business. Available through an online portal and a mobile app, this program allows motor carriers to better ensure that those you entrust with the job of driving your business have passed appropriately rigorous checks.

While the use of this program isn’t mandatory, failure to use it puts your company at increased risk of hiring a candidate who lacks the necessary credentials. This could result in a loss of time and money.

FMCSA regulations and safety audit

It’s not just enough to get from point A to point B; driving must be done safely. The FMCSA is there to make sure it is.

The FMCSA safety audit is a multi-faceted exploration of everything necessary to keep the driver, passengers and the public safe. Audit categories range from alcohol and drug use to repair and inspection violations.

3. Record of severe or repeated safety violations

While you generally only have to be found in compliance in a certain percentage of safety areas, some violations are severe enough that they can result in automatic failure of the entire audit. If you have a driver operating a vehicle without a valid Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), for example, you will fail your audit.

If you consistently fail to adhere to these safety regulations, you will receive violations. This will not only damage your business’ reputation but also expose you to fines and, potentially, forced shutdowns.

FMCSA regulations and hazardous materials

If you’re in the business of transporting hazardous materials, you’re required to meet additional safety fitness standards that pertain specifically to this area. These FMCSA HazMat standards measure your company’s preparedness to safely transport potentially dangerous substances.

These criteria cover a range of topics, from rules about parking vehicles containing hazardous materials to the process of dealing with accidents involving these types of vehicles.

4. Non-compliance with HazMat safety standards

To preserve the right to transport hazardous materials, you need to maintain these FMCSA standards. Failing to do so could jeopardize your right to transport goods of this type temporarily or even, in some cases, for the life of your business.

The FMCSA continually checks up on compliance with these standards, so you should prepare your business to face regular screenings—particularly if hazardous material transport is a large part of your company’s day-to-day business.

5. Poor HazMat safety ratings

When dealing with hazardous materials, safety is a must. Consumers and other companies will be less inclined to work with you if your business’ FMCSA safety rating leaves something to be desired.

Because these safety ratings are important, the FMCSA takes a lot of factors into consideration before assigning them. These factors include:

  • Safety management controls
  • Number and seriousness of regulatory violations
  • Number and seriousness of driver-related violations
  • An increase or decrease in violation count
  • Frequency of accidents
  • Frequency of hazardous materials incidents
  • Number and seriousness of CMV violations

FMCSA regulations aren’t static, but instead continually evolve to meet changing needs and demands. The speed of this evolution will likely increase as the organization seeks to keep pace with the innovations of V2Gov. These changes will likely include, but not be limited to, enhanced automation. Since change is coming, it’s vital that you remain aware of updates.

At times, the FMCSA and its rigorous regulations may seem to be a nuisance. At the end of the day, however, its job is an important one: to ensure safety. While run-ins with this agency could be hazardous to your business, they don’t have to be. By playing by their rules, you can benefit from a squeaky clean record and an unparalleled reputation.

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How Self-Driving Cars Disrupt the Auto Insurance Industry

Why a driverless car future is going to make a huge dent in auto insurance revenues.

Self-driving cars may sound like a really cool future technology, but in reality, autonomous cars are already here and their growing numbers will eventually seriously impact auto insurance revenues by up to 60 percent, car experts say. So how are insurance companies, automakers and government entities preparing for this major industry disruption?

The auto insurance industry collects almost $200 billion a year in premiums. Thanks to incredible leaps in technology, automakers have been making cars increasingly safer and less accident-prone. In addition, the advents of car sharing and other transportation services have also grown dramatically.

For the first time ever, car ownership is shrinking. With the rise of driverless cars, insurance companies are starting to look at a very different future.

Just as questions about autonomous cars and insurance were beginning to heat up, Sweden’s Volvo stopped even naysayers in their tracks when it made a brash announcement: Volvo will accept full liability for any accidents in its driverless cars. Surprisingly, Volvo also gave a 2020 deadline for gifting its drivers with zero fatalities or serious injuries while driving its self-driving cars.

“There is an intense discussion about liabilities for self-driving vehicles both among government, manufacturers and the insurance industry,” explains Volvo Cars communications manager Gun Bengtsson.

Volvo, Bengtsson says, “believes that the manufacturers should assume liability to compensate for the economic losses for incidents when the vehicle is in autonomous drive mode and it is determined the defect in the autonomous drive function caused the incident.”

Why? Volvo views “driving” an autonomous car as akin to having “handed over control to the vehicle manufacturer.”

Still, he believes the insurance companies will end up being middlemen of sorts. “The request for economic compensation may be firstly addressed to an insurance company who may rebut this to the manufacturer,” says Bengtsson.

He also sees a future in which the number of insurance claims will go down particularly in relation to minor fender benders as advanced technologies such as parking assist, adaptive cruise control and an array of sensors and screens come into wider use. Already, they are decreasing minor accidents.

“This means that cost of insuring a vehicle will go down” and even the need to insure a vehicle at all may go by the wayside. Bengtsson says this is when “manufacturers may then decide to include the insurance in the offer when buying a new vehicle.”

Think this is a problem that will need to be resolved far into the future? Already, five states allow autonomous vehicle testing on city streets and lonesome highways. And on Valentine’s Day no less, Google’s self-driving car (a Lexus SUV outfitted with radar, sensors and software) not-so-lovingly hit a public bus in Mountain View, Calif.

Google admits this was the first time one of its autonomous vehicles has created an accident even after logging 400,000 miles on city streets mostly in Silicon Valley. While nobody was injured, Google’s Lexus vehicle had to be towed from the scene because of heavy damage to the bumper, radar and sensors. Video footage of the accident shows the Google car was at fault.

So who’s to blame? Google took this one on the chin, of course, but the future for consumers and their newfangled partially- and fully-autonomous vehicles is not so clear. Fortunately, the insurance industry, car companies and government entities are beginning to work together to stay in step with these fast-moving, society-altering technologies.

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