Tag Archives: transportation

autonomous vehicles and safety

This article from the University of Illinois says that not only are autonomous vehicles safer than human drivers, but having just a few of them mixed in with the humans is actually safer for everyone.

The presence of just a few autonomous vehicles can eliminate the stop-and-go driving of the human drivers in traffic, along with the accident risk and fuel inefficiency it causes, according to new research. The finding indicates that self-driving cars and related technology may be even closer to revolutionizing traffic control than previously thought.

“Our experiments show that with as few as 5 percent of vehicles being automated and carefully controlled, we can eliminate stop-and-go waves caused by human driving behavior,” said Daniel B. Work, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a lead researcher in the study…

The team conducted field experiments in Tucson, Arizona, in which a single autonomous vehicle circled a track continuously with at least 20 other human-driven cars. Under normal circumstances, human drivers naturally create stop-and-go traffic, even in the absence of bottlenecks, lane changes, merges or other disruptions, Work said. This phenomenon is called the “phantom traffic jam.” Researchers found that by controlling the pace of the autonomous car in the study, they were able to smooth out the traffic flow for all the cars. For the first time, researchers demonstrated experimentally that even a small percentage of such vehicles can have a significant impact on the road, eliminating waves and reducing the total fuel consumption by up to 40 percent.

transitioning a highway to driverless cars

This white paper proposes some ideas for transitioning a highway to driverless cars in several steps.

The first step would be allowing autonomous vehicles into HOV lanes, the next step would be dedicating a lane to autonomous vehicles, and the final step would be expanding until all lanes are autonomous only. Regulators may want to phase these steps in with vehicles reaching various levels of the NHTSA/SAE autonomous driving framework (e.g., Level 3 automatic braking and lane control or 4 automatic control of all aspects of driving without the need for human intervention). We believe the first step of allowing autonomous vehicles in the HOV lanes could begin immediately with Level 3 and higher vehicles. A dedicated lane (each way) for autonomous vehicles could occur as soon as we have a significant number of such vehicles on our roads which could be 2025 or earlier if a tipping point has occurred. We can imagine that limiting non-autonomous vehicles to one lane on I-5 could occur beginning in 2030, which would mean at least three exclusive lanes for autonomous vehicles from Seattle to Everett, two exclusive lanes from Everett to Marysville and one north of Marysville to Vancouver’s downtown area.

autonomous trucks

This article from Wired brings up a couple points about autonomous trucks I hadn’t thought of before.

The startup Peloton is working on “platooning” trucks, or groups of vehicles that communicate via a wireless connection that helps them time their movements. At some point soon, the system might let a lead driver take over the steering for a bit, while those at the wheels in the vehicles behind could snooze, catch up on paperwork, meditate, whatever. California-based Embark would like to see driver-monitored trucks pilot themselves on interstates but be manually driven into warehouses by nimbler humans. Starsky Robotics has a similar vision, but says that the trickier driving maneuvers could be done by a human in a remote location, Predator drone-style. It’s unclear if any of these companies want—or will be able—to ever take the human out of the picture entirely…

So you could have one driver or no drives for a whole line of trucks on the highway. Then, when they get to town, a driver or even a remote driver could bring them in one at a time, if the computers are not yet up to the job.

One thing I think about is that this sounds a lot like trains. It’s hard for me to believe that platoons of trucks will be cost-effective with trains even after you take most drivers out of the equation. But remember that the highway system is automatically funded by all highway users through the gas tax, while rail companies are required to build and maintain their own infrastructure. Politicians in rural areas, which are greatly overrepresented in our electoral system at the state and federal levels, like this system because it makes taxpayers in the economically productive areas (aka cities) fund inefficient road networks in the mostly empty rural areas they represent. So this is not a level playing field where victory goes to the most efficient technology.

Logan and autonomous trucks

Not being a big superhero fan, I haven’t yet seen the movie Logan. Apparently, one thing in the movie is autonomous trucks.

About midway through the second act of the new X-Men movie Logan, there’s a scene that brings the superhero film’s vision of the future to life. Our heroes, on the run from the villainous Reavers, happen upon a car accident in the midwest. An autonomous truck vehicle has hit a horse trailer—and with nobody at the wheel, it’s hard to know why it happened.

I won’t go more into detail about the scene, spoilers, etc. But Logan’s writer and director James Mangold’s inclusion of the self-driving trucking machines makes it clear that the filmmaker understands the writing on the wall about the future of shipping. It’s a future without truck drivers.

Maybe as humans we find this idea creepy, but today’s human-driven trucks are incredibly dangerous and the autonomous trucks of the near future will almost certainly save human lives.

Tesla trucks

Tesla is trying out automated trucks that can drive in platoons.

Reuters has learned that Tesla wants to experiment with “platooning,” where several autonomous trucks, some without drivers, follow a lead truck on a highway using autonomous driving tech. This technique is viewed as allowing trucks to travel in small groups, creating some aerodynamic benefits for the following trucks and permitting the drivers in the group to switch to a “follow” mode that could not be accomplished with human drivers tailgating each other. In this platoon mode, all the trucks communicate to stay close, taking directions from a lead truck and reacting accordingly.

Read more: http://autoweek.com/article/autonomous-cars/tesla-wants-test-autonomous-trucks-without-drivers-them-report-says#ixzz4sc2PMY93

It was only a matter of time until attention turned to trucks and buses rather than just cars. One thing I wonder is at what price point would this technology be competitive with rail, given that trucks can deliver door to door? Especially if we continue to subsidize our roads with public money and our rails not at all.

200,000 annual deaths from air pollution in the U.S.

A 2013 study estimated the number of annual premature deaths due to air pollution in the U.S. at about 200,000. That’s kind of a shocking number considering it is more than deaths from other preventable causes like car accidents and suicides. An interesting (not in a good way) finding is that road transportation causes more deaths (~53,000/yr) from air pollution than from crashes. On the other hand, it means you can kill two birds with one stone when you institute policies and technologies that reduce vehicle emissions, driving, or both. Of course, a shift to electric cars just shifts the emissions to power plants in the short term, but that means many fewer centralized sources of emissions, which might be easier to deal with. A shift to more muscle-powered transportation in our cities is a huge win in terms of health (less violent death and injuries, less death from dirty air, more exercise in all that clean fresh air, probably better mental health), and a win in terms of land use and vibrancy and getting to know one another in our cities.

Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005

Combustion emissions adversely impact air quality and human health. A multiscale air quality model is applied to assess the health impacts of major emissions sectors in United States. Emissions are classified according to six different sources: electric power generation, industry, commercial and residential sources, road transportation, marine transportation and rail transportation. Epidemiological evidence is used to relate long-term population exposure to sector-induced changes in the concentrations of PM2.5 and ozone to incidences of premature death. Total combustion emissions in the U.S. account for about 200,000 (90% CI: 90,000–362,000) premature deaths per year in the U.S. due to changes in PM2.5 concentrations, and about 10,000 (90% CI: −1000 to 21,000) deaths due to changes in ozone concentrations. The largest contributors for both pollutant-related mortalities are road transportation, causing ∼53,000 (90% CI: 24,000–95,000) PM2.5-related deaths and ∼5000 (90% CI: −900 to 11,000) ozone-related early deaths per year, and power generation, causing ∼52,000 (90% CI: 23,000–94,000) PM2.5-related and ∼2000 (90% CI: −300 to 4000) ozone-related premature mortalities per year. Industrial emissions contribute to ∼41,000 (90% CI: 18,000–74,000) early deaths from PM2.5 and ∼2000 (90% CI: 0–4000) early deaths from ozone. The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors — in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!



According to Fast Company, Volvo is planning a move to 100% hybrid and electric cars.

Between 2019 and 2021, Volvo will launch five 100% electric cars–three Volvo models and two under Polestar, its premium brand. The rest of its new models will be either hybrid plug-ins or hybrids that generate power from braking.

The company is moving towards electrification more quickly than it initially thought was possible. In 2015, when Volvo first announced a plan for electrification, the company’s senior vice president of research and development said that the Volvo would focus on hybrids and that it would take time for fully electric cars to be viable.

But battery costs have plunged, falling almost 80% between 2010 and 2016, and are likely to fall further. Charging infrastructure is spreading. New regulations, like an EU law that limits CO2 emissions for cars, and France’s newly announced phase-out of internal combustion engines by 2040, mean that traditional technology has to change. And customer demand is increasing.

Electric cars don’t solve all the problems cars cause of course, such as urban sprawl, pedestrian deaths, obesity, and wasted time. But they solve the air pollution problem (locally, at least, and regionally if there is also a shift to cleaner power plants) and the problem of producing, refining, transporting and storing large quantities of toxic and carcinogenic gasoline and diesel fuel.