Opinion

The Solution to Greater Mobility and a Public Health Crisis: Self-Driving Vehicles

The future of transportation is happening today – but the promise of self-driving vehicles wasn’t always clear.

On March 13, 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense’s emerging technology research agency, known as DARPA, held the first competition to advance investment in self-driving vehicles, known as the Grand Challenge. This competition took place in the Mojave Desert, along a 150-mile route near Interstate 15, from Barstow, Calif., to just over the California border in Primm, Nev. But the technology and systems were not ready – and none of the vehicles finished this route. In fact, the farthest that any of the teams went was 7.4 miles, less than 5 percent of the full length of the course.

Fast forward to today.

Waymo’s self-driving technology has driven over 20 million miles on real-world roads since 2009. Kodiak Robotics, one of several startups aiming to automate commercial trucking, has successfully completed “disengage-free” deliveries on a 205-mile stretch of Texas highway. Disengage-free means safety – or backup – drivers did not have to take control of the truck’s self-driving vehicle system. Nuro, which was granted the first self-driving vehicle exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2020, has partnered with CVS and Kroger’s in Houston, Texas, to offer grocery and medical prescription delivery.

During this year’s Tech Week – an event hosted by the Consumer Technology Association where top government officials, entrepreneurs and policy experts explored the relationship between innovation and public policies – we highlighted the possibilities around self-driving vehicle developments and testing activities. 

Safety is paramount, as 94 percent of U.S. crashes involve human error. And some 36,000 vehicle-related deaths happen each year in the United States alone. Self-driving vehicles hold the promise to one day help prevent these fatal crashes, save lives and reduce crash severity.  

But the societal benefit goes beyond safe public transportation. These technologies promise to improve mobility for underserved communities — including people with disabilities and older adults — and reduce traffic congestion.

The technological breakthroughs in sensors, perception and machine learning systems have improved at a remarkable pace – and in sophistication – since the DARPA Grand Challenge. 

This is a credit to American innovation.

As legislators and regulators look to advance this growing and important industry, maintaining technology neutrality is critical to ensuring global competitiveness in a sector that will have a tremendous impact on our nation’s economy and job creation. Enabling the market to evolve, as technologies are developed, will help ensure innovation is prioritized and advanced as quickly as possible.

The self-driving vehicle is like a smartphone on wheels. Like the first iPhone released in 2007, the industry has achieved remarkable milestones — and the potential applications are endless.

In the last year, we observed entirely new, creative applications for self-driving technologies — from food deliveries to medicine and supply deliveries. The types of uses and applications will only continue to grow as developers learn more.

As a result of the public health crisis, innovators embraced, and consumers witnessed, the benefits of self-driving vehicles. A partnership between Beep, NAVYA and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority used self-driving vehicles to deliver medical supplies and COVID-19 tests to the Mayo Clinic in Florida.

Cruise repurposed many of its all-electric self-driving fleet to aid the biggest food pantry in the Bay Area, the SF-Marin Food Bank, and a community feeding program, SF New Deal, to provide essential food deliveries to at-risk populations and front-line workers across the city of San Francisco. 

CTA members are advancing the possibilities of this new “app store” – testing, manufacturing, operating and using various type of transportation methods from last-mile delivery to freight, and use cases, from fleet to ridesharing. Once these technologies are safely tested, the public can help launch the new platform and app ecosystem for transportation.

Despite incredible advances in self-driving vehicle testing and development, challenges remain. We need a federal framework for the rules of the road. Like the transition to digital television, consumer education is vital to safe deployment of these vehicles. Consumers should also be aware that many of these self-driving technologies – such as lane-keeping assist and hands-free parallel parking – are already early adoptions of self-driving. 

Through industry and policy, the United States can lead the global development of this life-changing – and life-saving – technology, and put an end to the needless deaths happening every day on our roads.

 

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. His views are his own.

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