Ford Motor Company presented the City of Tomorrow Symposium in San Francisco: a day-long event featuring leaders exploring how to best shape the future of our cities.
Rebecca Lindland of Kelley Blue Book hosted Karina Ricks of the City of Pittsburgh, Bryan Salesky of Argo AI (an autonomous car technology developer), and Shin-pei Tsay of the Gehl Institute for a conversation in all-things autonomous vehicles, offering three perspectives – a technology developer, government official and pedestrian advocate.
If anything about the world of autonomous vehicles (AV) seems daunting, it’s the control and safety concern. There will never be a time more difficult than when AV vehicles must share the road with human drivers. That goes for the developers making the AV and writing the code, the city officials enforcing the safety requirements, and the people who must exist in this world. Bryan Salesky offered some fascinating ideas, which I’ve turned over in my head. First, about local maneuvers. We’re talking about the “California Stop”, the “Pittsburgh Left”, and so on. The movements in traffic that keep a city going, but aren’t written law, or are often against the law. It poses a challenge for developers that must develop cars before AV becomes standard issue. The years leading up to the time AV becomes the majority of vehicles. Should AV err on the side of law? Or context-centric decision-making? How having them use the database of the engineering maximums of any given road? A rural street that is narrow and does not have any markings for a AV vehicle to follow poses some serious risks. Or a road without pavement at all. It should be clear, for a developer, AV’s challenge lies in the sheer number of arrangements, multiplied endlessly. How can you ever anticipate or accommodate all of them? Fortunately there are theories of how to best handle these situations, the leading one being that of machine learning. The great AV fantasy will allow for all AV cars to communicate directly with each other, engaging in real time to develop the most effective traffic strategies. It’s not nascent or fantasy technology, it’s being developed at present.
Karina Ricks approaches these innovations in a different way, one that is contingent on state and federal statutes, but also the constituents in her town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She approaches the technology with excitement but a critical eye, sensitive to how people on the ground receive it. There is no doubt that AV is powerful, but it’s safety record is still improving. Pittsburgh’s unique position as a real-world testing ground requires citizens to acquaint themselves with foreign technology while simultaneously setting the rules for how to interact with it. The practice of interacting with AV is still being developed, and cities that play host to what ultimately amounts to experiments take on a unique risk.
Gehl Institute is further down the line in this conversation, and Shin-pei Tsay serves as executive director, committed to getting public life on the agenda of cities across the globe. AV has a very unique position in Gehl’s research as it is so new that its effect on public life is deeply abstract at this point. However, Tsay sees potential in building AV-centric environments, the world with AV-only transportation is regarded as a good thing by Tsay, adding to the safety and mobility of the public, and giving more people access to movement. In light of Ford Head of Mobility Marcy Klevorn’s vision that transportation is a utility, the biggest concern consumers have today is the loss of control. However, AV in the mass-transit use-case is favorable to all of the panel. Fortunately, Ford is well-positioned here as well, as it is Ford’s stated goal to have a fully autonomous commercial vehicle in operation by 2021. The ambitious effort is part of Ford’s broader commitment of Ford Smart Mobility: a plan to be a leader in autonomy, connectivity, mobility, customer experience, and analytics.