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How Self-Driving Vehicles Benefit Cities Is Up to Us

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As the developers of a self-driving system, we think a lot about how our work can be applied to improve lives. Together with our partners, we want to do more than just plug self-driving vehicles into existing transportation models — we want to improve the safety of transportation in cities, and we want to solve transportation problems people encounter everyday. 

Many discussions around self-driving have focused on the technology and not the customer. We applaud a recent blog written by Jim Farley at our partner, Ford Motor Company, because it outlines how Ford is taking a customer-centric approach to creating services enabled by our technology.

Done right, self-driving vehicles can address unmet consumer needs and solve significant pain points that affect cities, their residents, and society in general. Specifically, self-driving vehicles can play an instrumental role in drastically improving road safety, while helping reduce traffic congestion and improving the accessibility and convenience of transportation overall. To be clear, many of these benefits will come gradually, as self-driving vehicles become more prevalent. As someone who thinks about self-driving technology every day, I would like to explain how we see it potentially benefiting cities and their residents.

Road safety

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 36,560 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2018. While this rate has decreased the last few years, it remains well above its all-time low of 32,744 in 2014 — so there is still a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to pedestrian fatalities, which are unfortunately on the rise. Every death on our roadways is tragic, yet as a society we seem to accept it as a necessary consequence of driving. As a company, we do not accept it.

Perhaps dismissing traffic fatalities as accidents leads to society’s acceptance, but in fact, accidents are rare, whereas human error is not. Oftentimes, it’s human error that leads to a collision.

We are designing our self-driving system to significantly reduce the number of errors that occur on the road. Our self-driving system is always paying attention, even when our vehicle has the right of way to proceed — it sees everywhere, in a 360-degree view. It can see, process and predict the movement of thousands of objects at once — whereas a human typically only considers a few at a time.

Our self-driving system detects and classifies thousands of objects at once and predicts their movement.

But while fatalities are an unacceptable consequence of driving today, let’s peel back the onion and take a deeper look at what else is happening. While the loss of life is staggering, according to NHTSA, motor vehicle collisions trigger 1.7 million injuries annually, causing $836 billion of economic harm to our society every year. That includes quality of life valuations as well as lost productivity, medical costs, legal and court costs, emergency service costs, congestion costs, property damage, and workplace losses. It’s hard to put a price on the societal and emotional toll of collisions. This is why we believe well-designed self-driving systems can be of incredible benefit to society.

City centers are the areas in which we will first deploy this technology. As mentioned in our previous blog, our self-driving vehicles will initially have a limited top speed and travel only on certain streets. However, these dense city centers are often complex environments where pedestrian fatalities are on the rise, despite their lower speed limits. So deploying self-driving vehicles in these areas could help reduce the number of crashes that result in non-fatal injuries and property damage, along with making the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Traffic congestion

If applied correctly, self-driving vehicles have the potential to reduce traffic congestion, but a fleet of self-driving vehicles won’t single-handedly deliver that result. To reduce congestion, we need to take a look at how self-driving vehicles fit into the broader transportation system. If vehicles and city transportation infrastructure become more connected and work together, safety and throughput will improve. Automakers are already equipping their vehicles with a variety of connected features, which is a step toward a more connected transportation system, and could facilitate improved throughput and traffic management. Many cities are installing connected traffic lights and other infrastructure that communicate directly with vehicles to optimize traffic flow. It’s possible to connect these smart traffic lights and connected vehicles to self-driving vehicles to further optimize routing and traffic flow.

Our position is that self-driving vehicles will create the most benefit through deployment in shared fleets, at scale. For self-driving vehicles to contribute to a reduction in congestion, the services they enable need to encourage shared rides or be highly utilized, meaning they handle the same workload as multiple vehicles, so there can be fewer vehicles on the road. High utilization is based on multiple factors, but it comes down to the way that the mobility service is designed to operate, such as minimizing “deadhead” travel — an empty car traveling to meet a customer — and controlling the number of vehicles on the road based on traffic flow and consumer demand.

Further opportunities are presented by leveraging the infrastructure created by networks of self-driving vehicles to maximize intelligent routing capabilities. When one self-driving vehicle sees construction or a road blockage, the whole fleet is notified and can avoid, rather than add to, the congestion around these pinch points. This is especially helpful to first responders and road construction crews because it means we can divert traffic away from these areas, contributing to improved safety. In addition, centrally coordinated fleets of autonomous vehicles can disperse in multiple directions rather than overwhelming what might appear to be the most obvious bypass, which often sends too much traffic down a residential street, as is the case with individual vehicles operating on their own today.

In parallel to designing self-driving services that deliver these attributes, cities are making significant improvements to the road infrastructure, such as implementing pickup and drop-off zones, which reduces congestion by cutting down on the need for double parking. While privacy concerns need to be weighed, self-driving systems could voluntarily provide anonymized information to the transportation infrastructure of communities, allowing insights about traffic flow to be aggregated back to the city and be utilized by traffic planning systems to improve flow. When these enhancements work in concert, we’ll start to see dramatic improvements in traffic.

Accessibility and convenience

Self-driving vehicle developers can play a prominent role in filling gaps in today’s transportation system by stitching together multimodal journeys and serving routes or areas where public transit doesn’t function well, or is not available at all. To have a positive impact on cities, self-driving vehicles need to be put into service where people need better choices, or where they may have no choice. This is how self-driving technology will come to improve people’s access to transportation.

Self-driving vehicles are capable of offering a more compelling experience for both ride-hailing and goods delivery, broadening access to services for many. However, it is the execution of services that will determine their success. These products need to be compelling, offering a clean, comfortable, safe and secure experience for riders. For goods delivery to be successful, it needs to offer improved convenience to a business or individual consumer through seamless integration, rather than presenting another obstacle.

It’s up to us

Argo AI was founded on the belief that self-driving technology can have a profound positive impact on our world. Self-driving vehicles, working in concert with other technologies, will enable us to improve a lot of things that are broken in our transportation infrastructure, and I think we can all agree that road safety, traffic congestion and the convenience of getting around could be improved. As long as we focus our work on addressing the pain points that people experience every day, self-driving vehicles can offer solutions we will all benefit from.

Choose your lane

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