Economic Development and Technology

Driverless cars are closer than you may think

Grand Rapids is among a small percentage of U.S. cities considering the ramifications.

February 12, 2016
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) If there was one thing to take away from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 transportation and mobility summit, it was this: Driverless vehicles are coming — and soon.

Anchored by keynote speakers Lauren Isaac, manager of transportation sustainability at WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle, the summit made a convincing case that driverless cars may be on the road in Grand Rapids sooner than most realize.

“We might be the last generation that owns cars, which is kind of crazy,” Isaac said at the outset of her presentation. “Our kids and our grandkids, they may never drive around looking for parking, or get a speeding ticket, or worry about drunk driving — and it’s things like that that have gotten me very excited for driverless cars.”

Isaac went on to outline the five levels of autonomous vehicles, which include: no-automation (Level 0); function-specific automation (Level 1), like cruise control and brake assist; combined-function automation (Level 2); limited self-driving automation (Level 3); and full self-driving automation (Level 4).

Currently, the car industry is starting to tiptoe into Level 3 with the rollout of self-parking cars and the like.

Michigan is one of six states — along with California, Nevada, Florida, Tennessee and Washington — to have passed legislation that allows testing of driverless cars. The University of Michigan’s Mcity testing facility, which opened in Ann Arbor in July 2015 and simulates driving environments and situations, is primed to play a crucial role in developing driverless cars.

During his presentation, Stuedle touched on the notion that Silicon Valley was becoming “Motor City West,” a perception he said made his “blood boil.”

“Michigan’s the place that put the world on wheels, and we will be the place that reinvents how transportation happens and how mobility is formed in the future,” Stuedle said. “And frankly, a lot of this is the backbone to make sure that continues to happen.”

One of the biggest benefits of driverless cars is the safety factor. More than 90 percent of car accidents are caused due to human error, and by taking the possibility of drunk driving, speeding and distracted driving out of the equation, the number of accidents would decrease drastically.

Driverless vehicles also could provide a mobility option for elderly and disabled people and the possibility for a reduced use of parking.

“The potential is that with a more shared-use society, with more people sharing vehicles, that there will be less vehicles on the road and therefore, less parking constraints,” Isaac said.

On the other side of the coin, the rise of driverless cars could mean a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled. The idea is that users of driverless cars would travel more frequently than they do now, resulting in higher levels of wear and tear on the roads and environment — though Isaac pointed out most predictions indicated driverless cars would be electric.

Other drawbacks were the possibility of increased urban sprawl due to “drivers” not minding a long commute, the need to restructure the auto insurance industry, and the potential for job loss.

According to Isaac, one of the first adopters of driverless cars likely will be the freight industry, not only because of the lowered costs by eliminating drivers but because they operate in a highway environment and would have the opportunity to use a platoon of connected vehicles.

Steudle also touched on freight platooning in his presentation. He said this summer, in partnership with the U.S. Army, MDOT would deploy a test along a stretch of I-69, simulating a platoon of Army vehicles using connected vehicles linked together.

Isaac outlined two potential extremes for a world populated by driverless cars. In her “nightmare” scenario, everyone would own and operate a driverless car and use it more frequently, creating major ramifications for infrastructure and traffic congestion. In Isaac’s “utopian” scenario, the one which reduces the need for parking and limits the impact on roads and the environment, a ride-sharing culture would develop.

As far as what communities can do today, Isaac stressed the importance of staying educated about the effects that driverless cars could have on infrastructure, and incorporating them into the goals of the city. According to Isaac, a recent study showed less than 30 percent of U.S. cities even acknowledge driverless cars are on the way.

Just by hosting the Feb. 5 summit and resulting discussions about driverless cars, Grand Rapids became one of those leading-edge cities.

Following Isaac’s presentation, a four-person panel that included representatives from Uber, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., HNTB Michigan Inc. and Supply Chain Solutions, discussed what Grand Rapids could look like with driverless cars on the way.

Bill Kirk, DGRI’s mobility manager, said discussion about parking in the city requires a delicate balance. The demand between current commuting and driving habits will be drastically different from what will happen in a world with driverless cars, so the city has to account for both needs.

“I think as we look at where we’re at as a city, in the position we’re in, I think we have an incredible opportunity to get it right because we haven’t made these huge investment decisions yet,” he said.

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