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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Autonomous cars could redefine urban travel

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Photo by Photo by Abby Collida

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has been researching ways in which self driving vehicles could help disabled individuals on campus. 

There are at least 263 companies racing towards autonomous vehicles (AVs), according to the “Future of Transportation Stack,” an investment information resource produced by the venture capital firm Comet Labs. At Texas A&M, mechanical engineering researches are working to help the advancement of this industry.
During the summer of 2017, the mechanical engineering department conducted a study in which they tried to find if autonomous vehicles could help disabled individuals navigate campus. The results of the study are still being finalized, but the timetable for self driving cars becoming the norm is still a long way off, according to Robert Brydia, Texas A&M Transportation Institute senior research scientist.
“The time frame till when we have autonomous vehicles sitting in our driveway is a long way off,” Brydia said. “It’s not just a technology question. It’s an economic question. It’s a regulatory question. It’s a policy question. It’s whether the infrastructure will be able to handle the new vehicles. The technology has to exist first, but there are other things to consider.”
On October 4, 2017, the United States Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee unanimously approved legislation allowing car manufacturers to sell 80,000 self-driving cars per year within three years. In College Station, city officials are monitoring the roads to see if AVs would be a good fit for the city.
“At this time, city staff is monitoring the industries with regard to autonomous vehicles and investigating the technology’s impact on zoning, parking, etc.,” College Station city traffic engineer Troy Rother said. “Right now, the city has an agreement with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute regarding their research and potential deployment on city streets.”
The American Planning Association lead events around autonomous vehicle engineering and safety. For instance, they led a symposium titled “Autonomous Vehicles: Planning for Impacts on Cities and Regions” in October of 2017.
The question of how often Americans will use shared versus private AVs was a talking point at the symposium. They also discussed how autonomous vehicles may change driving patterns.
“It is difficult to predict how automation will change how people’s vehicle usage,” said Mike Lukuc, Texas A&M Transportation Institute program manager and research scientist. “Just like how people’s phone’s changed how they behaved, the industry is anticipating a population that is radically different in terms of vehicle usage.”
The San Francisco Municipal Agency plan to integrate transit planning and payment structure using data for its mobile app, according to their website. University of Sydney civil engineering professor David Levinson suggested framing transportation as a utility, thus requiring public oversight, in order to maximize welfare. This data is also being studied by A&M researchers, such as Lukuc.
“There is a lot of interest in the data that is being generated,” Lukuc said. “This data tells you a lot about the dynamics of the automated vehicle. But how to share this information obviously becomes a problem. It’s expensive to transmit data, and when you do, is it secure?”
According to a 2017 paper published in the Journal of Public Economics, abandoning the gas tax and switching to a vehicle miles traveled tax could save the Highway Trust Fund, a fund used to make sure drivers pay for infrastructure improvements.
“I think that autonomous vehicles offer an opportunity to rethink how you charge people,” Lukuc said. “We have people here at TTI who are thinking on new ways of charging people as travel patterns change. But I think user fees like the mileage tax are a good solution.”
On Sept. 6, 2017, the United States House of Representatives passed the Self Drive Act, which established safety standards and loosened federal rules to allow greater experimentation by automakers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,000 people are killed in car crashes annually in the United States and fatality numbers have been increasing since 2014. Last August, NBC News reported that vehicles are becoming the weapons of choice for terrorists.
“Safety is always an issue,” Lukuc said. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has guideline related to self-driving guidance. State government are releasing guidance as well as various voluntary guidelines by organizations such as the Society of Automotive Engineers. The federal guidelines cover six levels, with zero being no automation and six being completely automation. When people think of self-driving cars, they are mostly talking about level three or four.”
Research by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo used sales data from the International Federation for Robotics to explore trends in the installation of robots in the United States and international work places, which showed large negative effects of automation on employment and wages in different industries. According to Brydie, this work displacement could push back the development of AVs.
“You may actually need more drivers,” Brydie said. “Some say that these vehicles will end up replacing truck drivers. But if the vehicle is travelling for longer periods, you may end up needing more drivers in places like cities where autonomous vehicles would have trouble operating. It is too early to say one way or the other what the impact of autonomous vehicles will be. As of now, different studies have found different results.”
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the transportation sector represents 27 percent of total United States emissions, the largest of any single sector.
“There is still a lot of disagreement in what the environmental effect of autonomous vehicles will be,” Brydia said. “You get different answers depending on the assumptions you make about autonomous vehicle usage. What we do here is keep in mind sustainability when we design these vehicles. Obviously, if people are driving for longer then there is the potential for more emissions. At the same time, you can see how automated vehicles can eliminate most of the inefficiencies of people driving.”

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