November 1, 2016

The Future of Transportation… If We’ll Risk It

Today I attended the Colorado Transportation Summit, a fascinating conference that focused on the future of transportation and how it will change. The keynote speaker was Tom Gebhardt, the President of Panasonic Automotive Systems. I didn’t even know that Panasonic worked in automotive systems, but it turns out, they’re producing some really cool technology aimed at automating the way we move from place to place. Here’s a cool video we got to watch about the first shipment done by self-driving truck, right here in Colorado:

Over the course of his keynote, Tom shared a number of interesting statistics around the future of driving. For example, 94% of accidents are caused by human error. That indicates a lot of potential accident reduction if we were to have autonomous vehicles (AVs) take care of the driving rather than humans. That also means a lot fewer traffic jams, as we also learned that 60% of traffic congestion is caused by accidents.

But why I found this most interesting wasn’t the technology itself, but rather, how most people are so scared of the adoption of AVs, and what we can do about it. Remember when that Tesla crashed in Florida a few months ago while in driverless mode? It made all the headlines, even though the LA Times reported that the crash was the first known fatality in more than 130 million miles of autopilot driving… compared to a fatality every 94 million miles of regular cars. 40% is a pretty dramatic reduction of accidents, even if it doesn’t bring the fatality rate to zero.

Unfortunately, we all focused on the one accident that made headlines, overestimating the risk of a crash as a result, with many people using it as evidence of why we shouldn’t allow a car to drive for us. This reminded me a lot of an NPR article I recently read on how much our perception of risk can change based on moral judgment of the action taken. An accident by a human? Well, mistakes happen to the best of us. An accident because of new technology? Ugh, you lazy people wanting to adopt these newfangled inventions so you can sit on Facebook in the passenger seat rather than put your attention/effort into driving.

Image source: Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press

It was Governor Hickenlooper who provided a really compelling example of just how much our perception of risk can hold us back. Have you ever ridden in such a dangerous thing as… an elevator? When the elevator was first invented, a person was assigned to ride in the car to manually open/close the door and start/stop the car. Eventually, we were able to automate that to where someone could just press a button and the car would automatically shut the door, start moving, go to the right place, stop moving, and open the door. But for fifty years, people resisted the adoption of this technology, refusing to set foot in an elevator that wasn’t operated by a human. (If you’d like to learn more about this, check out this NPR article and this Atlantic article.) Sounds a lot like AVs, huh?

At the Colorado Transportation Summit, we heard a lot about some pretty crazy ideas to revolutionize transportation. We heard from the Business Intelligence Manager at Hyperloop One, who proposes that one day we might be able to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco (about 350 miles) in just 35 minutes. We heard from the founder and CEO of Bridj, a popup mass transit system that challenges the idea that mass transit has to start with significant infrastructure investments. And we saw an amazing video that I can’t find online to share about what cities will look like when we don’t need parking lots (since AVs can go drive themselves elsewhere to park) or wide lanes (since we won’t need the same margin of error). The upside of AVs is extraordinary, but the lingering question is: how do we get people to trust that AVs are safe, and change the status quo? I’m hoping we can do it a lot faster than the fifty years it took us to be okay with driverless elevators.

After attending today’s conference, I’m pretty excited about what the future of transportation looks like. But I’m also thinking a lot about how I evaluate risk, and whether my perception truly matches the reality.


2 thoughts on “The Future of Transportation… If We’ll Risk It”

  1. I hiked with the “driver” in the autopiloted truck shown in the presentation you are talking about on the PCT in 2009. He was very serious in the video but is more of a jokester in person.

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