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‘Make no mistake. This is coming’: What a driver-less York County might be, and when.

Take a ride inside Google’s self-driving car

What's it like to ride in a driverless car? Google's Autonomous Car Team explains the features on a test ride with Sacramento Bee transportation writer Tony Bizjak.
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What's it like to ride in a driverless car? Google's Autonomous Car Team explains the features on a test ride with Sacramento Bee transportation writer Tony Bizjak.

What would a driver-less York County look like exactly? Well, it would be different.

Everything would be different.

Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study leaders gathered Friday in Rock Hill to, among other items, hear about the possibilities and challenges with connected and autonomous vehicles. While experts aren’t sure when enough driver-less vehicles will be on the road to require major roadway and funding changes, they’re expecting it.

“This is a few years ahead of us, obviously,” said RFATS administrator David Hopper. “But make no mistake. This is coming.”

Chris Herrmann with RFATS joined Hooper in 2017 for a series of workshops with counterparts, consultants, legislators, planners, road and auto industry experts, freight companies and more in the Charlotte region to talk about driver-less vehicles. The group formed a task force that meets every other month.

The idea of cars without drivers isn’t new, Herrmann said, from Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century plans for the first self-propelled cart to General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

“Ever since then we’ve been thinking and imagining autonomous and driver-less cars,” he said. “Books, movies, TV — there’s even a ride dedicated to it at Disney World.”

It seems the world of tomorrow is here. There are autonomous shuttles now from Michigan to Las Vegas. Autonomous vehicles are being tested in California, Colorado, Montana and North Carolina. Driver-less delivery vehicles could start showing up on streets ahead of full passenger vehicles, Herrmann said. Some models already are in development.

When is it coming?

Connected and autonomous cars are different. Connected vehicles can communicate but require human assistance. Autonomous vehicles don’t. Connected vehicles need vehicles to communicate with other vehicles and off-site data centers, along with sensors in traffic signals and other road system upgrades. They don’t play as well with others, compared to autonomous vehicles.

“Can a connected vehicle communicate or interact with any sort of vehicle that’s not connected?” Herrmann said. “Imagine what safety hazards you could have.”

Autonomous vehicles use artificial intelligence, GPS, high-speed lasers and cameras to make traffic decisions. Herrmann said experts look at vehicle autonomy on a 0-5 scale. Features like electronic stability control, pre-charged brakes, adaptive cruise control and lane centering are moving vehicles toward that highest number — full autonomy.

“We’re somewhere in between a Level 2 and a Level 3 with car manufacturers today,” Herrmann said.

Level 3 is where the car becomes co-pilot, as several upscale manufacturers are doing now. The highest level is something different.

“You don’t even have a steering wheel on the car anymore,” Herrmann said. “The car interacts and operates on its own.”

Car safety spent a half-century in one safety era, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with seat belts and anti-lock brakes the peak of technology. Vehicles now are in their third safety era since 2000. A new era of fully automated vehicles could introduce yet another era by 2025, according to the task force.

Other major advancements in technology aren’t necessarily helpful. The North Carolina Department of Transportation provided the task force with a saturation study showing it took 75 years from the introduction of the automobile for 90 percent of the U.S. population to own one. The telephone took 73 years. Air conditioning, the stove and the clothes washer all took a half-century or more. Electricity took 42 years.

The television took 13 years. The radio took 23 years; cell phone, 14; and internet, 20 years. The smartphone took just three years.

“It’s very difficult to try to judge when the saturation of all these cars on the market will happen,” Herrmann said. “I can’t express how widely the difference of opinion has been.”

Some experts in the field project saturation in the 2020s. Others say the 2050s or later. But it’s clear, it’s coming. Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Tesla and Volvo all have plans for “some sort of autonomous vehicle or feature” by 2021, Herrmann said.

Autonomous vehicles may instead go the way of cable TV, which with the advance of internet never reached that saturation point.

“Maybe you go more to a car subscription service than an ownership (model), and we never reach that 90 percent adoption,” Herrmann said.

The technologies that grew faster in the nation’s history, he said, were the ones where there already was infrastructure in place to support them. Which gets at the mission of groups like RFATS.

“You are going to be asked to make intermediate and long-term transportation investments concurrently with the evolution of this technology,” Hooper told the RFATS committee Friday. “This technology has special infrastructure needs.”

Should driver-less happen?

There are projected benefits to go driver-less. Trucking and home delivery service companies could avoid labor shortages. While drivers now use 5 percent of the road to leave space, autonomous vehicles could platoon much closer together at high speed. The success of ride-sharing services goes into projections, Herrmann said, that autonomous vehicles could be a $7 trillion industry. Plus, there’s safety.

Worldwide, about 1.3 million people die annually from auto wrecks. South Carolina had more than 1,000 auto crash deaths the past three years.

“Over 94 percent of auto accidents are due to human operator error,” Herrmann said. “You’re driving under the influence, speeding, driving while distracted, falling asleep at the wheel and other traffic violations. Imagine what we could do in terms of safety if we take out that 94 percent of human error.”

Riders could get more work done, sleep or entertainment from trips where today the Charlotte region experiences more than 32 hours of peak hour excessive delay — rush hour traffic — each year. Children too young to drive, seniors who may be unable and the disabled combine for about 165 million people in this country, Herrmann said.

“We could be providing transportation services to millions of people that currently have limited options available to them,” he said.

There are likely negatives, too. Lawmakers could have their hands full deciding rules on platooning, or how young is too young to ride unaccompanied, or how insurance determines fault when a wreck happens without a driver.

“You have to consider the ethics involved,” Herrmann said.

Many questions brought on by autonomous vehicles aren’t so much right or wrong, just different.

“If a computer is traveling all the time, driving your car going the recommended speed limit, there goes ticketing,” Herrmann said. “You think about parking. If you can summon an autonomous vehicle to take you to work and pick you up from work, parking and paid parking is no longer needed.”

A family with two or three vehicles now may need just one if it can drive family members separately. Vehicle registration fees and gas tax revenue to fund roads could see drastic changes, especially if vehicles go electric or all hybrid. Hooper wonders how a usage-based funding model would work if cars aren’t stopping for gas.

“In order to do that, you have to have the ability to track individual vehicles,” he said. “There are real concerns how you’re going to make all this work.”

The unwanted constant

Existing parking garages with converted upper levels for social, business or green space. Parking towers with cars tightly packed without need for space to passengers — already dropped off elsewhere — to exit. Gathering places then looking more like schools do now.

“We could see maybe the development of more pickup and drop-off lanes,” Herrmann said. “Like you see at any school, you could see it at employment centers, destination centers, points of activity.”

With a sea change of the driving experience, it’s perhaps the one part of transportation today that could see little impact.

There still could be traffic.

“We have to think about the increase in vehicle miles traveled,” Herrmann said. “Some experts predict that due to that convenience and due to that increased level of mobility, we could have more people on roads than we do today.”

Autonomous cars are supposed to move freer and closer together, helping with traffic. But Herrmann points to a study his task force reviewed where people were given a free driver service for a week and told to use it the way they would autonomous vehicles.

“Those people took more trips, spent more time on the road, traveled more miles than they would driving themselves,” Herrmann said.

So even if cars move more efficiently and passengers can read or text rather than drive, if more people use the vehicles more often traffic could be a wash.

“If people aren’t going to continue to use it at the same level, they’re going to expand their usage level, we may be more efficient but the overall demand we’re still putting on the network is expanding because of that,” Hooper said. “We’re not necessarily just getting the efficiency benefit.”

The vehicles could even contribute to further urban sprawl.

“If you’re not driving yourself, would you be willing to sit in your car and relax while the car drives you further into work and from work?” Herrmann said.

For groups like RFATS, which allocated federal transportation dollars throughout much of York County and Indian Land, figuring out how to keep road infrastructure up while adapting to potentially drastic technology changes will be a challenge. There could be HOV lanes converted to autonomous lanes, more roundabouts since autonomous vehicles read them better than intersections, less parking, more on demand transit, fewer traffic signals and signage.

“We’re certainly going to need roads, but maybe we don’t need signals and signage anymore,” Herrmann said.

Today, there are as many questions as answers related to autonomous vehicles. There are few, though stark, certainties.

“The rest is yet to come,” Herrmann said.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority is still seeking companies to test autonomous vehicles on the Triangle Expressway, but did recently test a vehicle with advanced driver assistance technology on the highway.

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