‘Autonomy’ drives from the beginnings toward the future with driverless vehicles

IMG_1291I’ve been curious about automated vehicles and how they will alter and revolutionize so many aspects of our daily lives within the coming generation.

I read more about the history of the development of autonomous vehicles in “Autonomy,” by Lawrence D. Burns, a former GM executive who also worked with Google’s self-driving car project. The book is written from the perspective of a man who has spent nearly two decades in the middle of it all. I’ve gained a little more confidence in this automotive technology and the life-altering opportunity that lies ahead for our planet.

From the back cover:

Autonomy tells the story of the maverick engineers and computer experts who triggered the revolution. Lawrence D. Burns—longtime adviser to the Google self-driving car project (now Waymo) and former corporate vice president of research, development and planning at General Motors—provides the perfectly timed history of how we arrived at this point, in a character-driven and vivid account of the unlikely thinkers who accomplished what billion-dollar automakers never dared.

The book is a quick read and has plenty of good details and interesting stories about the development of automated vehicles. It found it to be reassuring about how much hard work, dedication, engineering, and testing has been put into the development of this field. Their goal is to make our roads safer (saving nearly 40,000 lives lost in vehicle crashes annually) and more inclusive (1.5 million blind Americans would be able to control their own mobility, for example).

“There’s a lot of speculation about whether children born today will ever get their drivers’ licenses. That’s a good question. Some might, they way some children today still learn how to ride horseback,” Burns wrote. “Freedom of mobility will exist for everyone, regardless of whether you’re able to operate a motor vehicle.”

By “everyone,” Burns was referring to the ability for all users – blind, deaf, disabled, elderly included – to someday be able to use automated vehicles without assistance. Freedom of mobility and equity in mobility.

Burns dissected and explained the detail in the first known driver death (Joshua Brown, Florida 2016) and the first known pedestrian death (Elaine Herzberg, Arizona 2018) from crashes with automated vehicles. In both cases, driver errors were largely to blame (although the Uber driver has escaped criminal charges so far in the Tuscon case). but the technology also had to be improved and further tested.

As he hearkened back to the time before automobile when everyone used horses for transportation, I instead thought about bicycles and pedestrians. As someone who tries to spend as much time as I can biking and walking and not in vehicles, I’m concerned for the safety of those who chose active transportation and healthy lifestyles and how automated vehicles may alter their safety and lives.

In my job at PlanRVA (Richmond Regional Planning District Commission), we are working to educate the Richmond region about how automated vehicles will detect and interact with bicycles, pedestrians, wildlife, road debris, unexpected inanimate objects, and more. I’ll have a follow-up post to summarize our discussion during our Active Transportation Work Group on May 14.

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