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The auto industry has been promising for years that autonomous vehicles will make our roads and commutes safer. Yet traffic congestion, accidents and driver distraction continue to increase. In fact, road deaths in the US have a 20 years high, with no real solution at hand.
In the long run, AI promises to ease our burden, drive our cars and improve our humanity. Yet, recent reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) indicate that intelligent drive systems may cause as many accidents as they prevent. The question is not whether we need better control, but where that control should rest and how we regulate it. Is the control in me, my vehicle, the government – or the remote servers of companies that own and orchestrate the data?
A lack of appropriate regulation has left it to individual citizens – and sometimes states – to decide for themselves how safe they think autonomous vehicles (AVs) really are. But with leading automotive AV manufacturers evading the truth and a lack of industry-wide safety standards to hold companies accountable, we’re left asking, “What’s the best way forward?”
Addressing this question requires new policies that focus less on individual software algorithms and more on emerging roadway effects. Today, the focus is on software engineering processes related to the AI brain on board an individual car. Oddly enough, there’s no focus on the impact of that brain on the roadway around it. Individual intelligence is not wrong, but we need our policymakers to step back and look at the bigger picture at the system level.
Why don’t intelligent cars improve our roads?
The most fundamental challenge facing the community is that we don’t have an objective way to measure performance. We need measurable safety – a performance based system that focuses on relative motion. This requires us to improve positioning error from meters to centimeters and improve timing from seconds to milliseconds. Once we have accurate relative motion data, we can develop an objective, cross-industry metric for analyzing driving performance. Without it, the industry remains drunk on marketing.
The DOT has tried to catalog accidents linked to Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and autonomy since June 2021. Original attempts to measure safety and performance were rooted in the DOT’s connected vehicle vision. An ambitious Vision Zero program claimed that by connecting every vehicle with the ability to send and receive basic safety messages, congestion and accidents could be a thing of the past.
Making this vision a reality required a few critical ingredients: precise positioning so the cars knew where they were, and reliable communication to ensure those messages got across the road quickly and resolutely.
For twenty years, the DOT firmly believed that GPS was the key to a connected vehicle paradise. The plan started to take shape and testing in open environments worked well, but the big plan hit a wall when testing in cities began. Urban ravines, for example, cause GPS signals to bounce, causing dozens of meters of error.
After testing on Sixth Avenue in New York City, the DOT recognized the need for “alternative positioning” to enable its vision of connected vehicles. A phone can have a 10-meter GPS error and you’ll still find the Dunkin Donuts, but the DOT’s vision of connected vehicles requires a much smaller margin.
With positioning at 10cm, we found that predictive braking and coordinated acceleration helped cars move in harmony. However, with a 10-meter error, the cars on Sixth Avenue thought they were going through Radio City Music Hall. That meant none of the security apps worked. The DOT thought that a small mistake would only slightly reduce the safety advantage, but instead it completely ruined it.
Perhaps it makes no sense to refer to satellites that are 20,000 kilometers away in space to get an idea of cars that are only a few meters away. On the other hand, it’s not enough just to see the car right in front of you. We need communication to make sure cars move together and anticipate what’s happening ahead rather than just reacting to what’s happening right in front of us.
Policy leadership for the future of autonomous vehicles
Despite these failed attempts to improve the safety of self-driving vehicles, the industry continues to make progress and explore new approaches. The desire to reduce traffic congestion and prevent accidents may lead us to jump straight to a specific solution, but the first step should be agreeing on a benchmark for measuring success.
A new approach to measurable safety focuses on relative motion rather than global positioning. It uses the ultra-wideband (UWB) technology developed by the US government for GPS rejection defense applications. Robots used this technology to navigate tunnels and bunkers and to detect landmines.
At first, the precision of UWB seemed like science fiction, but recently UWB has exploded in cell phones and cars, enabling an entirely new approach to tracking relative motion. What started with just a few robots now has the potential to scale massively, enabling an interconnected framework of peer-to-peer positioning and communication.
UWB is just one of many technologies that could meet the safe motion measurement specification, but currently it is the only one proven to work in cities. What is certain is that we can’t keep pretending that GPS solves a problem that it doesn’t. To fully solve the transportation problem, we need a significant number of vehicles to embody the solution, and that may take some time.
However, to measure the performance of ADAS and AVs, a sample set can come in very handy. Fortunately, we don’t need full adoption to get the benefits of a measurable security policy. We just need an objective way to measure the safety and performance of a representative subset of ADAS and self-driving cars.
Yet it is unlikely that this will happen without a firm government policy in the form of a mandated data recorder – similar to a black box on airplanes.
However we choose to have measurable safety policies, accurate relative positioning must be the underlying foundation. We must shift the bar from meters to centimeters in order to clarify the solution of our policy vision.
On top of this foundation, we need investments in smart infrastructure, including edge computing and reliable communications.
Enabling this new system-level approach requires courage from our government officials. The creation of GPS took courage and foresighted investments from the government. Publicly available GPS wouldn’t have simply sprung from the industry’s benevolent self-organization.
Today we need a new initiative focused on the next big thing: roads with measurable safety, so that we can apply science rather than marketing to the challenge of improving our roads. After all, we cannot effectively regulate what we cannot measure.
David Bruemmer is Chief Strategy Officer at NextDroid.
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