A March 18 fatal crash during an Uber self-driving car test in Arizona raised safety concerns from mayors in US cities who often feel powerless to regulate the technology. Matt Hamblen reports from Smart Cities Connect on where we go from here.
Mayors said they hope to take a bigger role in protecting lives. Even so, they realise that self-driving vehicles are inevitable and should eventually lead to far fewer fatalities.
How cities react to self-driving vehicles will also impact self-flying drone taxis that are set to fly over cities, sometimes carrying people.
Cities generally want more say in the tests being undertaken by carmakers and shared ride companies like Uber that are testing self-driving vehicles. If cars or flying taxis with software and sensors are making decisions affecting the lives of pedestrians and occupants of vehicles, governments will need a bigger role.
Pause for thought
On March 18, a self-driving Uber Volvo SUV struck and killed Elaine Herzber, 49, while she was walking her bicycle across the street in Tempe, Arizona. A test driver from Uber was behind the wheel of the car when the crash occurred. Shortly afterwards, Uber suspended its self-driving testing operations there and elsewhere in the US.
“That fatal accident in Arizona gives everybody in cities pause to think about what’s needed for safety,” said Samir Saini, citywide CIO for New York City, in an interview on March 27.
“Everybody is figuring out if there is a role for cities and other government regulators to play with regulation of autonomous vehicles,” he added, referring not only to surface vehicles but flying drones.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has asked Saini to evaluate the role of self-driving vehicles in New York City as well as futuristic flying drones. “Their role in New York is still to be determined,” Saini said.
Saini will have a central role in how New York proceeds with tests and authorisations of self-driving vehicles, including futuristic personal flying vehicles that some companies are prototyping. He and other city officials spoke at the Smart Cities Connect conference in Kansas City, Missouri, attended by 1,500 city mayors and technology leaders across the U.S.
San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell said at the conference that the Arizona accident has been a reminder of the role that cities and states have in protecting public safety.
After the accident, he convened a meeting of city fire and police officials to answer questions for how police would respond to future accidents.
There were some basic questions at the meeting, he said. “When the cop pulls a self-driving car over to ask for a license and registration, what does he do if there’s only a computer sitting in front?” Farrell asked.
“Self-driving vehicles are the future, but so far they are far from mature,” Farrell added in an interview. “Everybody in San Francisco is excited by them but freaked out by a fatal crash at the same time.”
Farrell noted that pedestrians are already killed far too often by cars with human drivers. National safety experts are adamant that self-driving vehicles will eventually reduce highway fatalities of all types, which exceeded 40,000 nationwide in 2016. About 94% of them have been attributed to driver error.
Farrell said city mayors in California are frustrated that permitting of autonomic vehicles is done by state officials, even though cities and counties must send first responders to the scene of accidents.
A reminder to regulate
In Kansas City, Mo. there are mixed opinions about the value of self-driving vehicles, even as the city has been a big promoter of entrepreneurism and tech startups.
For instance, a two-year-old streetcar runs for 2.2-miles along Main Street, creating a 54-square-block district with free Wi-Fi. The route is activated by 174 sensors as well as about 200 cameras to collect data on pedestrians, vehicles and parking. The data can be used to keep the pathway clear for streetcars.
Separately, the KC Area Transit Authority (KCATA) is planning a self-driving vehicle test, with an official announcement expected in late spring.
Mayor Sly James said in an interview that the Arizona fatality was a reminder of the city’s need to regulate such technology for safety and other reasons.
“Self-driving vehicles are not that important yet in KC, but we plan to regulate them,” he said.
In addition to safety, James has concerns that self-driving vehicles will take away jobs from bus and taxi drivers. One priority of his seven years as mayor has been to promote job growth. “We need to be sensitive to displacement of those people working in the city,” he said.
Even before the Arizona accident, Uber already had a questionable reputation with Kansas City (and many other cities) when it arrived in town a few years ago, throwing a wrench in the city’s conventional taxi business and regulations.
“There’s a conversation to be had that new tech companies not intentionally disrupt regulations and take compassionate responsibility,” said Rick Usher, assistant city manager for Kansas City, in an interview.
“Yes, we will have self-driving vehicles here, but is it three years, five years or 10 years before that happens?” Usher asked.
Testing it out
Cities everywhere are concerned about the cost of maintaining roadways to the level of precision required for sensors in self-driving cars, he said. Cities will have to maintain sensors and lane markings, for example. It isn’t clear yet that self-driving technology will make it safe for cars to drive on roadways where snow has obscured lane markings or sensors.
The KC area self-driving test, which James called an “experiment,” is planned to run along an a 18-mile abandoned railroad segment now owned by Jackson County, Mo., according to two officials. It will be a joint test between KCATA and Jackson County. Pavement will be constructed to form a pathway for self-driving shuttles, bicyclists and pedestrians.
One safety advantage of running self-driving shuttles on abandoned railroad rights of way is fewer interactions with other human-driven vehicles. In many cases, tests by major car companies of autonomic car capabilities are being done on large, private campuses where conditions can be controlled.
The Arizona fatality has raised the level of sensitivity that city officials feel about safety with self-driving vehicles, said several private-sector officials attending the Connect conference.
“The Arizona accident is a real concern, for sure. All accidents are,” said Herb Sih , managing partner of Think Big Partners, a professional services firm with ties to Kansas City smart city projects.
Even so, the value of self-driving vehicles to cities of the future will be “huge,” Sih said in an interview.
One factor Kansas City is facing is attracting young talent to its city and to new housing in the downtown area. Many newcomers don’t want to drive or even own a car, much less commute and park every day.
“With dynamic routing, cities can redirect shuttles or buses, meeting commuter demands during heavy traffic days and giving opportunities to new workers to get to jobs,” Sih added.
“Self-driving vehicles are ideally safer, but no technology is perfect,” he concluded.
Up in the air
At one panel discussion at the Connect conference, attorneys and city officials discussed the need for liability and safety laws to evolve to protect citizens on the ground, as well as passengers.
One attorney who asked he not be named said that cities could be “shafted” if they don’t work with the Federal Aviation Authority to set standards before the onslaught of drones increases.
Some future flying vehicles will work like helicopters, perhaps with one or several passengers, but without a pilot present. In the autonomic scenario, a person might request a flight to a destination via a smartphone app, with airport permissions and flight path obtained through software. Airmap for Drones, available for iOS, offers such features, for example.
A German company, Volocopter, said last year it would begin testing drones with passengers in Dubai in 2018. Ehang in China is developing a single passenger flying vehicle. Uber has also proposed a self-flying plane for short trips with room for up to several passengers. All could be piloted autonomously.
Cleveland attempted to ban drones in 2016, but the FAA intervened and said it regulates airspace. In the future, there should be a greater role for cities in regulating drones, manned or unmanned, especially over populated areas, attorneys on the panel said.
“Cities definitely need to worry about safety and become partners with the FAA and private companies, whether the vehicles are autonomous or not,” said Jonathan McGory, general counsel for Cleveland Airport System.
City governments will also, undoubtedly, face complaints over noise from drones and invasion of privacy, panelists predicted.
“When planes first arrived, people freaked out, saying planes would scare their livestock,” McGory added.
Who’s to blame?
There is an urgent need for cities to evaluate liability with self-driving vehicles, either those on the ground or in the air, added Mark Zannoni, research director for IDC.
In many cities, it isn’t always clear where the liability lies if a self-driving car is damaged when it hits a pothole or gets in more serious crash. Statutes should make it clearer that cities should not bear greater liability than they do today, adding financial exposure to city coffers, Zannoni added.
“Cities have a profound hand in guiding future liability legislation,” Zannoni said.
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