Category Archives: transportation

Electric Cars SPARK RESILIENCY

photo credit: https://ecotricity.co.nz/cradle-to-grave-emissions/

Electric sparks may have been the cause of the ruinous fires in California this Fall. Incongruously, Electric Cars could be the beneficiary as the aftermath sparks new demand for alternative energy and gasoline-free vehicles. It was not the four-wheeel drive SUVs or oversized ICE (internal combustion engine) pickups  that came to the rescue. During the month-long disaster, Electric Vehicles served in heroic roles.

Consider the following item in Electrek from Carleen Cullen, executive director of Cool the Earth:

When her Marin County home’s power was shut off, she plugged… (a $25.00 inverter) into her Chevy Bolt’s cigarette lighter and ran an extension cord to power a radio, computer, cell phone, and lights. “It was an excellent solution,” she said. “And I did the same thing with my Tesla Model 3 to get lights running in my kitchen and TV room.”

Cullen (the founder of Drive Marin) explained that she needed to keep both cars turned on for the power to flow. The Model 3 was in the garage, and the Bolt was in the driveway. It meant going to the driveway to turn on the Bolt every hour or so after the car automatically shuts down. Meanwhile, her neighbors were in the dark.

EV TO THE RESCUE:

It is not the first time that Electric Vehicles have been first responders. In 2011, Nissan sent 66 electric LEAF vehicles to northeast Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. In September, 2019 it again deployed the LEAF platoon following Typhoon Faxai. This rescue,  called V2H, provides vehicle- to- house power.

The Nissan V2H requires a small portable unit that connects between the house and the vehicle. This portable unit (currently) sells for about $6,000   so it’s not within the financial reach of many households and it is apparently only available in Japan.

However, with a fully charged 62 kilowatt hour battery and commercial size inverter, this solution is said to provide enough electricity to power an average (Japanese) house for four days. Or, it can charge 6,200 smartphones, or more than 100 elevator trips in a 43 story apartment building. General Motors recently suggested a similar home charging device, using batteries from recycled Bolt vehicles.

EV ‘RX’ ON THE SPOT

Note that in Marin, California Cullen was able to plug in, with a much smaller, and less expensive ($25.00) device, called an inverter. It converts power from a DC feed to AC. Cullen observes the one full day of power back-up used about six miles of vehicle range.

Cullen is helping spread the word and Californians will be updating their emergency kits with inverters. For those who can afford it, going full scale and powering their homes with a Tesla Wall (solar to home or car) will provide the fullest and greenest backup. The house and the car will recharge indefinitely, no matter how long the power stays off.

But, even with simplest and smallest inverters, and jumper cables,  California owners of Bolts, Teslas, and Nissans have more resources than drivers of ICE, gasoline cars.

GAS ENGINES (ICE) BURNING FOR FUEL

When the electricity shut-down in Northern California, many gas stations were caught unaware, and did not have backup generators to operate their tanks. So, it was common for people in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa Counties to drive thirty miles or farther in search of an open, and functioning gas station. 

As the time without power extended and more and more gas stations shut down, drivers faced a challenge. Drivers tried to locate gasoline, but lacked local information and maps. It led to extraordinary congestion and traffic snarls. The occasional vehicle would be way-laid on the side of the road when its fuel tank stalled out on “E”.


 PHONES AND CARS : AN RX RECHARGE

Keeping the tank full of gasoline was a necessity for more than driving trips. Charging smartphones was the critical issue and households used the USB ports and/or cigarette lighters in their vehicle to keep  smartphones powered. For many, this charging-in-the-car provided the only modicum of public safety to access the Internet and emergency services. 

Newer vehicles with well-maintained 12-volt batteries did not encounter problems charging the smartphone in the car, but older cars could have faced mechanical strains. Everyone found that charging a phone in the car took a lot longer than under household conditions because of the difference between household and vehicle amperage. Ironically, those “driving to charge the phone”  had to spend additional time on the road, and consume more gasoline.

STILL RUNNING ON EMPTY

Once the electrical power came back on, the gasoline crisis was not over. The demand for gasoline left popular stations without supplies, and it took a few days for them to restock. This was not the first time emergency conditions challenged ICE vehicles. Gas station havoc was noted following Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas (2017. 

EV DRIVERS THINKING AHEAD

During the recent California fires, the situation was somewhat better for Electric Vehicle drivers, even if they did not own or borrow an inverter. First, recharging the phone in the electrical vehicle takes relatively little electrical power and does not draw down the battery much.  

More important though is something about the mindset of electric vehicles owners. 

Electric vehicle owners tend to be better prepared, or, put another way, “when people get an EV, they start to see the world differently.”  Many keep their vehicle at a 80% charge, since they must habitually plug-in at night to program for off-peak savings. On an everyday basis, they keep the range topped-up. And, owning an electric vehicle makes drivers more conscious of daily decisions surrounding distance, range, and preparing for the unexpected. 

Electric vehicle drivers already live “off the grid” when it comes to the sprawling network of gasoline stations and ICE repair shops. It’s easy to move further “off the grid” with an inverter, or more completely, with a Tesla Wall or a Nissan H2V.  As ICE drivers melt down in disasters, the next step is to join in the ‘electric charge’.

Echo Loop, MAAS, & Future TRAVEL

When Amazon introduced a novel pinkie ring that activates Alexa through voice commands, they probably didn’t consider its historical significance. The smart ring, called the Echo Loop, is the pinnacle of new technology.

It will take a while for the Echo Loop to become mainstream, but like an earlier wearable, namely the wrist watch, it is a game changer. It has the potential to manage transportation, reduce our reliance on smartphones, and unleash a torrent of connectivity.   It will spur Mobility as a Solution (MaaS) because it  is convenient and familiar.

TRAIN TIME

Many inventions, such as the wrist watch, first emerge as toys or novelties. Initially, pocket watches, “told  much about a gentleman, with regard to his social standing and his place in society.”  It was considered a faux-pas to check the time by pulling out a pocket-watch (on chain) in mixed company.  The pocket watch was as an object of discussion, a status symbol, and a luxury item.

The utilization of this device began to change as more countries developed large national rail networks. In the beginning of rail transport, every city, town, and railroad had their own timekeeping, leading to many train accidents. England adopted “railway time” in 1848  and in 1884 Greenwich Meridian Time became the universal standard. Still, it took a deadly U.S.  crash in 1891, the Kipton Train Disaster, to lead to precise engineered devices here.

THE FIRST WEARABLE 

During World War I supply truck drivers and aviators often received orders with strict time frames to help synchronize military actions.  These men needed timepieces that would let them keep both hands on the controls and check the time. Hence, the wristwatch was improvised and its popularity skyrocketed.  

I believe we have reached a similar technological transition today. In our vehicles, smartphones help optimize route-taking and navigation. However, drivers with hand- hold  phones are at 2 to 3.5 times greater risk of accidents than those with hands-free, voice-activated devices. 

ENTER ECHO  LOOP

This is where the next stage of technology, an Echo Loop  ring, will come into its element. CNET reported that the September, 2019 debut of the Echo ring  had people scratching heads and wondering what they would do with it…. 

“Yet to be discovered” is the potential to make travel planning “screen-free” and simultaneously provide more personalized and up-to-date information through integration with the transportation network. MaaS (mobility as a service) awaits a better technology to become mainstream. 

MaaS  IN A LOOP

The goal of MaaS is to organize seamless fare payment and to integrate timetables and modes. In today’s schema, MaaS combines transportation options from public and private sectors and provides a trip-taker with a customized travel ‘solution’ for each journey. For example, a commuter might take a trip by ferry boat, then get directions to walk to a bus stop, and complete the final leg to the office with a scooter or rideshare. All of these activities, including the booking and payment are handled through a single account. 

Currently mobile phones are the mechanism for creating a multi-modal MaaS trip, but this medium has significant drawbacks. The trip-taker must carry a smartphone and its voice activated commands are likely to be incomplete, and in some cases, unsafe. MaaS, via smartphone, requires a lot of swipes and RFID communications to stitch together a single trip.

ADVANCED JEWELRY

Advanced “jewelry” (the wearable), can bring calm to this endeavor. Imagine that the Loop would function like a wrist watch, executing in the background but behave more like an experienced, helpful companion who knows the route and can enliven it with conversational detail. 

Like the watch the Loop would clarify when to leave for the next ride, how much time to wait on the platform. The ability to perform, and speak customized travel planning will reduce the  reliance on screens. 

Unlike a wristwatch, a Loop could check for delays or changes, and give dynamic step by step directions. It might also reduce congestion by balancing  supply and demand, and help make more efficient use of the network.

And, through the voice commands, it could perform the duties of a personal assistant and reach out to the people or activity at the end of the journey. 

LOOKING BACK…LOOKING FORWARD

Time-pieces, as you will recall, helped lay the groundwork for railroads. If this playbook still holds, then the smart ring, today’s novelty and luxury item, may become tomorrow’s facilitator for a better MaaS, and a transformed means to travel.  

 

 

Uber, Lyft: Public, CIvic?

Uber and Lyft are now publicly traded companies, but it is notable that neither of them signed on to the widely acclaimed  corporate governance pledge (Wall Street Journal, 8/19/2019). Rideshare CEO’s probably feel that corporate citizenship and community participation have always been core values, but the general public may not agree. Nearly two hundred CEO’s from America’s best known and largest companies, but not ride-hailing, endorsed a new code of corporate ethics from the Business Roundtable.

I recently participated in a civic panel that had to “convince” authorities in local governmental to view rideshare, namely Uber and Lyft, as the solution, not the enemy, for local transportation needs.  It was a hypothetical exercise, but we came away from it with a renewed appreciation for the civic role that rideshare companies could play. There were lessons for rideshare that support the goals of the governance pledge. 

Their naysayers entered our exercise with the view that rideshare was the progenitor of new  road congestion, curb disputes, and falling transit ridership. They also viewed rideshare as a potential threat to municipal coffers from reduced parking revenue and taxi medallions. That said, they came away from our exercise with a new appreciation for working cooperatively with Uber and Lyft. 

Shareholders or Stakeholders?

In our hypothetical exercise which took place in a real city hall, the panelists noted that Uber and Lyft should focus civic efforts on the next generation. They identified a need to collaborate with local high schools and job centers.  Noting that many kids will not go on to college, they identified the need to develop vocational skills. The civic minded panelists suggested that Uber and Lyft set up forward-looking training programs so that students learn about alternative fuels and energy. They could participate in sourcing bio-diesel  from local sources. The concept is that technical training will prepare kids for jobs ten and twenty years out, equipping them to work on electric and bio-diesel vehicles, not just gasoline cars. (note: in some communities, Uber already promotes electric vehicles)

Along the same line of thought, the panel recognized that Uber and Lyft have an ever increasing need for drivers. That is, until the roll out of autonomous vehicles. They thought that rideshare companies could provide outreach to the unemployed or underemployed and even help them procure vehicles to drive.  This might increase the supply of part and full time drivers. (again, uber and lyft encourage part-time drivers).

Support Mobility

The charge of our panel was to “convince” government authorities that rideshare companies, namely Uber and Lyft, were their partners when it came to improving local transportation. The panel seized upon the need to work with local government to enable, and improve, first and last mile trip taking. The goal, as you would expect, was not to put public transit out of business or cannibalize  service, but rather, to make it more accessible and practical for riders. Transit agencies cannot provide door-to-door service, and mass transit does not reach to the outer-ends of the sprawled city. So, the panel suggested that Uber and Lyft operate many different types and sizes of vehicles, and expand upon shared-ride and van-type services. In fact, Uber and Lyft do this in many cities today. 

Expand into Freight

Freight logistics also got a boost from the panel. While no one saw drone delivery as the immediate answer to congestion, rideshare algorithms were viewed as a potential solution for freight delivery. It was thought that smarter logistics could reduce the total number of delivery vehicles on the road, bundle loads, and juggle the time-slot for deliveries.  At the extreme, pallets could be off-loaded to designated Uber and Lyft owner- driven vans and deliver goods outside peak commuting hours. 

Taxing Efforts

The panel’s most far-reaching recommendation for local government was to impose a tax, but not just on rideshare. The tax would be levied on drivers who did SOV (single occupancy vehicle) commutes and single rideshare trips.  Many states, from California to Massachusetts, currently impose a tax on the transportation network companies. This ten to twenty cent fee per ride is typically turned back by city government into more transportation projects, or in the case of California, into subsidizing more wheelchair assisted vehicle (WAV)  rides. The panel’s intention with the tax was to end the privilege of being a single car owner and accelerate more shared (2+ rider) trips using rideshare.

Summing Up with ‘Surprise’ for Governance

The curious thing about rideshare is that Uber and Lyft have programs in place today that do serve underprivileged populations, expand first and last mile trip taking, and work alongside public transit. These individual programs are splattered across the country and receive occasional attention within individual communities and are known among transportation planners. However, the latter group has often been estranged by the reluctance of Uber and Lyft officials to share local rideshare data and numbers.

Now that Uber and Lyft have become public companies, sharing information may become more standard and routine. When they do so, there could be benefits. As rideshare companies continue to expand their transportation footprint and develop entirely new markets, they might find, surprise, that local governments are a close ally and new partner. Meanwhile, local government, surprise, might find that rideshare will be the solution to their many small but vexing mobility problems. 

Rideshare As Niche Transit? (Nice!)

Rideshare and Transit Working Well
Rideshare and Transit as Partners

Can transit be a contender in the race for ‘first-mile last-mile’ and niche travel?  Transit doesn’t have a short, sexy name, like Lime or Bird, but transit does have room to grow if you pair it with rideshare. 

This past week I attended a short workshop held by the Massachusetts  Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) called a ‘Ride-Hailing Parternships Forum. The program showcased local  institutions that have partnered with Uber and Lyft .  It was an interesting weave of legacy  transportation and  the upstarts.  Here are observations, and in italics  my comments (JG).  While I have tried to be journalistically accurate, it is still a good idea to check with the workshop coordinator  before quoting.

Niche 1: Rideshare Goes Where Transit Does…But Faster

The Boston region has an older but extensive commuter-rail and bus network so in principle you don’t have to own a vehicle, even if you live in the outer suburbs. However, getting from one locale to another can be exceedingly slow if the travel trip requires connections or transfers. Northshore Community College had difficulty getting students to campus within a reasonable travel time as the classrooms, and campus services were spread over different locales (think of a triangle: public transit often had students traveling the right angle).

The Community College found a solution: they provide enrolled students with access to a rideshare business account. It has a cap of $10.00 per trip and travel is limited to commutes.  Northshore no longer operates a shuttle bus at an annual cost of nearly $100,000, and students seem to reach their classes with less travel time. This means that the campus can recruit from a larger area, retain students who have a family or work a second job, and not make car ownership seem like a prerequisite for getting an education.

JG: From a birds-eye view, rideshare is expanding the transit network in the greater Boston area. Over time, it may help to fine-tune it, and even reduce the number of low-performing bus routes (see Niche #4 below too). A larger question for land-user planners is how to locate future facilities, like a community college, closer to the main lines.

Niche 2: Rideshare Lowers the Cost of Paratransit and Makes Riders Happy

The Ride, which is the paratransit operation of the MBTA, had a purported annual budget in 2016 of  ~ $100 million.  Around 2016  they partnered with Uber and Lyft, and encouraged ambulatory passengers to take rideshare instead of the usual paratransit trip. Each rideshare trip trip would be subsidized, but could not exceed a cap.  What began as a pilot proved to be a win-win for passengers: they said they preferred arriving in Uber or Lyft instead of big, lumbering vans or Ride branded vehicles; they did not have to pre-book for travel often three or four days in advance; and they seemed to enjoy participating in high-tech mobility.

The  travel outcomes are surprising and important.  According to a RIDE spokesman: the pilot reduced the RIDE’s cost the per cost trip from $41.00  to just $17.00. That is a 59 percent decrease. However, it also fueled the number of trips “ordered” by eligible customers by nearly 46 percent.

There have been a few other bumps on the service road. Many  passengers resist taking pooled trips. And, a few Uber and Lyft drivers have been resistant to accommodating  service dogs. The stickiest and most challenging issue seems to be providing a sufficient supply of WAV  (wheel chair accessible vehicles).

JG: Perhaps one of the most vital aspects, still to be measured, is whether both the mental and physical health of RIDE passengers is improved. Does new- found mobility improve the quality of life and are their benefits from the opportunity to be more socially, culturally, and physically active?

Niche 3: Rideshare is the New Link to Medical Care:

It is often cited that 30 percent of patients miss their medical appointments because they cannot get to the doctor . Whether that percentage is too large is debatable (patients might want to cancel for other reasons), but the no-show numbers are staggering.

The Needham Community Council, a private non-profit social service agency tackled the issue several years ago when their Executive Director saw a decline in the number of volunteer drivers. She was the first to identify Rideshare as a back-stop for patients who had difficulty reaching medical services, and went on to negotiate business contracts with both Uber and Lyft (she currently uses only Lyft).  Since her older office staff lacked the facility to dispatch rides with smartphones, the council reverted to summoning rideshare trips via voice calls like the Go Go Grandparent  service.

The Needham service currently averages about thirty-five trips a month at an average cost of $8.00 per ride.  Although each trip is completely subsidized, the council discovered a soft touch so that about 25% of the riders to contribute to the cost of travel. Meanwhile, local hospitals and charities also make small financial contributions.

JG: The Needham program is noteworthy, not only because it was a first in health-care travel, but because it continues to be sustainable. Although many larger corporate players are moving into this space this is an example of how a small grassroots program can do the job well, and make up for the lack of volunteer drivers.

Niche 4: Rideshare is the Missing Link in the Transit Schedule

Bus service is not 24/7 but the needs of riders can be,  particularly on weekends, holidays, and after 6 pm.  With limited service evening riders are stranded along with those working night shifts and low paying service jobs.  In fact, to work a low paying job at night or weekends, you might need have to own a car. The problem is particularly acute in low-density, sprawling suburbs, where workers are more likely to be able to afford to live.

The Greater Attleboro-Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) operates fixed bus route service from  6 am to 6:30 pm weekdays, and Saturdays, 9 am to 5 pm. To meet the needs of their ‘under resourced’ riders,  community leaders  banded together to provide an alternative. They tapped into an existing transit grant of $30,000 and used the local YMCA as a lead. Now, riders who are opted-in by any of the community leaders (there are currently ten of them) get access to rideshare  outside of the narrow transit service window.

Other regional transit agencies are beginning to investigate the feasibility of this niche service, particularly for routes where headways are long and ridership is sparse (often a confounding problem).

JG: In an interesting twist of data analysis, origin/destination/ and time of day data from Uber and Lyft  might reveal where future bus service is warranted. It has generally been observed in other cities that the highest level of rideshare growth has been in the evenings and on weekends. 

—–

In our earlier blog, we observed that regulators are quick to jump on the bandwagon to tax the rideshare companies and blame them for increased traffic congestion and reduced transit ridership. In fact, an earlier publication by MAPC, whether correctly interpreted or not, led to the headline that Uber and Lyft were pulling people off public transit and putting them in traffic .

The MAPC workshop, yet organized by regulators, suggests there might be a softening and second look at entirely new and niche travel behaviors.  

Distracted Driving Needs a Slogan- MADD II

We don’t get in cars with drunk drivers, but why do we persist in driving with someone talking on a cell phone?

April was ‘Distracted Driving Month’ and most drivers probably encountered at least one public service ad or safety warning. While the advertising campaign is thirty days long, the problem persists throughout the year. Over a twelve month period, there will be nearly 3,500  traffic deaths, and 400,000 traffic injuries associated with distracted driving per the National Highway Traffic  Safety Administration.

The real accident rate, the underlying numbers, are much larger. It is difficult for police officers at a traffic scene to code for distraction. Unlike wearing a seatbelt or testing for alcohol use, cell phone distraction is not obvious. There is no simple way to know whether a cell phone was involved in a crash and it is difficult to obtain telco calling records. Drivers often forget, or are unwilling to talk about their phone use, and witnesses are not a good source of information.

Whatever the coding, traffic deaths are the number one public health issue and take a larger toll than we realize. One sobering statistic comes from Israel, which is positioning itself as a leader in autonomous cars: since 1948, 35,000 people have died on Israel’s roads compared with 25,000 in war and terror attacks.

While cars are getting safer,  accidents due to distracted driving are on the increase. Yet the outcry about distracted driving seems to be fading (except in April). Most people would think twice about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking, yet someone using a cell phone is more at risk. A widely quoted study in Human Factors cited that a driver talking on a cell phone is more impaired that someone with a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.08.

At least three methods have been used to control distracted driving, none of them fully successful. The first method, which might be called a countermeasure, works directly on the source, the phone. The app is able to control and halt incoming calls and text messages. The apps also turn off notifications and alerts that could distract a driver or tempt to use their phone. Most of these  apps are free, but have found few followers. Even parents of teenagers, who could track their teenager’s cell phone use in real time, seem resistant to the counter-measure.  When Auto-Shut Down apps were recommended by the former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2010, critics countered that the police use text when they drive, and the apps represented an over-reach of federal government.

A second approach has been public awareness campaigns, like the one in April from the National Safety Council. There is an advantage here as people can be reached where the distraction is occurring; namely in their cars. Billboards and radio seem to be an underutilized medium. Distracted driving has not received resources that have gone into publicizing similar, year-long,  in-vehicle campaigns like “Buckle Up for Safety” and “Don’t Drive and Drive”. The NHTSA has responded with the U word: “U Drive, U Text, U Pay.”

A third approach has been legislation. The key problem is that cell phone bans are hard to enforce and traffic officers seldom pull over offenders. No state outlaws all cell phone use for drivers, despite a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban texting while driving, and the placing of hands-free calls. 38 states ban all cell phone use by new drivers, and 14 states prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. That legislation is perhaps drafted by public servants who observe their own behavior in cars, and anticipate that if it safe for them, it is safe for others.

One reason legislation lags is because people intuitively like to use their phones in cars, and they want to believe that hands free technology is safe. The counter argument, from research in cognitive science, is that cell phone conversations are detrimental to driving. Cell phone conversations keep drivers from paying full attention to the road and it also reduces their visual field. After following 100 vehicles over one year with specially equipment, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transport Institute  found that nearly eighty percent of crashes and sixty-five percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention up to three seconds before the event. Their in-car cameras recorded the source of the distraction, and, of course, it was frequently the cell phone.

There is currently a push to install hands-free phones that would eliminate the need to reach for a phone, or text while holding the steering wheel. While these intuitively seem to help, they do not reduce the cognitive burden for drivers. Vehicle dashboards with speech-recognition and  touch-screen systems distract drivers, in new and unknown ways.  It could be argued that over time, these systems will become more intuitive and drivers will get more fluent using them. In a previous blog, we compared this to the early days of car radio. An equilibrium may be reached but until then, there will be several generations of dashboard technology. Until that point, dashboard tech may cause teeth gnashing and accidents, as a humorous story in the Wall St. Journal recently noted.

Going forward, perhaps “Distracted Driving Month” will evolve into something with more staying power. “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”  might someday expand their mission to reflect the current problem, and they would not even have  to change their acronym (MADD). Meanwhile, the road to driverless cars will be filled with more distraction as drivers try to manage the intermediate dashboards.  When a fatal accident occurred in a self-driving Tesla vehicle last year, the driver was said to be in the ultimate state of distraction- watching a movie.

 

Synergy: Autonomous Cars and Cell Phones

 

Synergy is a simple way to describe the relationship between  cell phones and autonomous cars. The more we use our cell phones, the more we need  to find a safer way to travel.

Most of us know that we are at greater risk for an accident when we use our phones and drive at the same time. Yet, we persist, and at any given time, an estimated nine percent of drivers are talking or texting (2011). The actual numbers may be higher, as evidenced by new 2016 data showing that motorist deaths are continuing to surge.

Engineers are developing autonomous cars to address virtuous needs like safer roads, mobility for the disabled and blind, and energy efficient travel. But, what about the “talk factor”,  the not-so-safe activity that happens in the background of vehicle trips?

FILLING TIME AND SPACE… THE DISTRACTION

Drivers and passengers  have tamed in-vehicle time by using their phones on the Internet, placing or receiving phone calls, and sending texts or chat. Our transportation models  consider the origin, where people travel from, and the destination, where people travel to. But, the research does not pay attention to what happens in the middle, the sandwich time between the endpoints.

Drivers who use their phones are distracted in several ways: visually, cognitively, and manually. The cell phone, as distraction, bears an interesting comparison with car radios. Are they a source of distraction, even though the “conversation” is one way?

THE RADIO AND DISTRACTION

Bill DeMain examines this issue in a 2012 article for Mental Floss. When car radios debuted in the 1930s, there was heightened concern that they would distract drivers. Reaching for the dials, and searching for a station could take a driver’s focus off the road.  A few states, Massachusetts, New York, and others, proposed fines if a driver installed a radio. It is vital to remember that these early cars lacked power steering and automatic transmissions, so driving safely required full attention and “two hands on-the wheel.”  

Early legislation to ban car radios failed, but it is reminiscent of today’s hard-to-enforce laws that prohibit texting while driving or hand-held devices.  

Today, close to a century later, you might expect that drivers are more familiar with their car radios, particularly as the controls and placement have simplified. Yet that is not the case. In 2002 the NHTSA reported that 66 percent of fatal car crashes involved  “Playing with the Radio or CD”.  In a more recent white paper the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) does not single out the car radio, but observes that sixteen percent (16%) of the fatal crashes in 2009 involved distracted driving. Police reports could visibly identify cell phones in nearly 20 percent of these fatalities, but the actual rate was thought to be larger.

In 2014 the NHTSA reported only 10% of fatal crashes and 18% of injury crashes were associated with distracted driving. That’s because NHTSA changed its standards for reporting distration. The new data set is not specific to cell phones, and includes all sources of driver distraction, including, of course, the radio. It is noteworthy that while people are driving more miles, there should be a safety offset from vehicle improvements such as air bags, assisted braking, and electronic stability control.  In their 2016 data analysis, The National Safety Council, a nonprofit group, indicates that traffic fatalities are growing at a pace that far exceed the three percent increase in miles driven .

SHOPPING FOR NEW CARS

But, on a more colloquial level, it seems that people now shop for a new car with connectivity, not safety, at the forefront. For example, a Car and Driver/Good Housekeeping selection for the best cars of 2017 indicates the new GMC Acadia has standout features: “The features of this SUV are:  (1) the Acadia seats up to seven (2) it has a Bose sound system and (3) it can serve as a WiFi hot spot perfect for road trips.”

Buyers of the Acadia and other vehicles like it, have a new found opportunity to fill the dead time when they travel, the time and the space between here and there. They can continue their online presence, even when they are behind the windshield. Intuitively, drivers know that they put themselves at some risk when they do so; it does not take a driver’s education class to understand there is heightened visual and cognitive distraction. Even with hands-free control, most drivers know that they are not as safe, but they continue to use their cell phones. If  they are lucky enough to own a Tesla, they interact with a giant touch screen.

DISTRACTED STILL

Older people may be less adept overall with these technologies and have slower reflexes operating cell phones and touch-screens in the car. The MIT Age Lab and others study this in field work. One of the surprising results they  report is that drivers using voice command interfaces to control in-car navigation systems  sometimes spend longer with their eyes off the road than those using conventional systems. Moreover, there is no evidence that older drivers are safer operating the dials on the car radio, while younger people are safer and more adept with phones. 

Going forward, the only real solution to reduce accident rates for drivers of all ages is to take their hands, their minds, and their visual field completely off the road. Then, they can fully participate in and manipulate their online conversations, without fear of an accident. The desire to do this will move the technology. It will move it towards hands-free, hands-off trips in autonomous cars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR To Steer Autonomous Vehicle??

talkicarNASCAR might need to steer the Autonomous Vehicle….

This past year the sport continued to loose sponsors and viewers, despite the crowds at the Driver’s Crown finale in November.  It would be exciting if NASCAR could reinvent itself and recognize the coming rise of autonomous vehicles. Races can serve a vital role in new technology- they showcase advancement, bring teams of like minded engineers together, and educate/entertain the public simultaneously.

In fact, the earliest days of the autonomous car began with a race sponsored by the Department of Defense (DARPA Grand Challenge). For a few years teams came together to race in the Mojave Desert, and then the competition moved on to more urban challenges.  Many pioneers of the autonomous vehicle, like Chris Urmson, began their careers with the DARPA challenge.

Fast forward now to NASCAR races, where attendance and viewership is said to be slacking off. One explanation is that NASCAR is synonymous with sport for Baby Boomers. Boomers are a car-centric generation, and nearly 1 in 10 Boomers have worked in a job associated, at some level, with automotives. But currently, their children and grandchildren drive less and are less sentimental about it. Younger people are not motorheads- it has moved on to an internet centric generation.  

But, there are changes for NASCAR that might help bridge this gap. And, it is beginning with with challenges for electric Formula One type cars, aptly called Formula-E!  But, NASCAR is the better suited race to showcase future vehicles, because “it’s not necessarily the best car that wins. It’s the car that has done best with speed, maneuvering, fuel mileage, pit stops, and restarts after cautions.”

Imagine a future race where the vehicle that “wins” is still the first one that can cross the finish line, but does so by avoiding hazards in the road, say mattresses and sandbags. The racing autos might need to differentiate between “real” versus fake red/yellow/green signals. And, a winning car might be equipped with a backup plan, when its LIDAR bearings are purposively scrambled by the race committee. The “most winning” vehicle  will cross the finish line by neither sideswiping its neighbors, nor causing rear-end collisions. Along the way, it might be come in for a (human enabled) software pitstop or two. It is reminiscent of the DARPA challenge.

For an autonomous NASCAR race, the primary change may be recognition that auto accidents, aka “crashes” are no longer a prime-time draw. Fiery crashes against the wall, spin-outs that cause chain reactions, and crumpled metal should be reevaluated for their entertainment value- in a new era charting sports-induced concussions and injuries.  The autonomous car  is a “red flag” for this traditional type of  racing. These new vehicles are programmed to avert accidents, steer away from hazards, and cooperate with other vehicles on the roadway.

A second difference for a future NASCAR/ autonomous race is the environmental impact. Currently, NASCAR teams may use between nine and 14 sets of tires per race, which amounts to between 36 and 56 recapped tires. A single NASCAR vehicle is said to get about 5 miles per gallon. The smell of petro permeates the stands and engines roar. The autonomous car, once again, is a “red flag” to NASCAR conventions. These  future vehicles will be designed to control emissions and be silent in busy, congested and densely populated cities.

This is not to say that NASCAR and the autonomous car cannot find common ground. Even prior to DARPA, there were solar and electric powered car races, and speed was the winning criteria, as in NASCAR. The question today is how can an autonomous car bring excitement to the track, particularly if it is programmed to obey the speed limit, avoid collisions, and travel in harmony with nearby vehicles? That is to be worked out, off the course. The good news is that the result will educate/entertain people about the autonomous car, particularly if it begins, like its NASCAR roots, with vehicle models that are familiar names and nearly showroom ready.

The Collectible Car As Endangered Species

Hagerty Group- Car and Driver 2014
classic cars

The collectible car may become an endangered species. It is not for lack of Bugattis, gullwing Mercedes, and air-cooled Porsches. The reason is that there will not be enough ready buyers who want to hold on to these legacies.

There are two complementary forces at work: The first one is generational. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to fully embrace the two-car, and sometimes three and four car household.  Boomers are estimated to own 58 percent of the estimated 5 million classic cars, says a Car and Driver interview with the Hagerty Group (see image too). But, only about 3 percent of vintage cars sell at auction and these cars are “the best of the best”.  Cites the Car and Driver article, “Boomers are beginning to age out of this hobby.”

A GENERATIONAL CHANGE

But, as we note in Chapter Seven in Aging in Suburbia, the times and tastes of the next generation are not so accommodating. A front page story in the Wall St. Journal notes that the next generation, kids of the Baby Boomers, do not have the same attachment to accumulated treasures. Millennials do not want ownership of their parents’ household, and many family heirlooms are stacked up in garages.  Ironically, these heirlooms share the space with the collectible car(s), and, for the more upscale, a garage/storage off-site.

Millennials don’t seems to want the cars, and, they probably won’t have a place to store these collectible cars either. In real estate markets, they continue to shun large suburban homes in favor of smaller, more urban/close in properties. And, newer Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) properties, are typically built with parking maximums- no extra spaces for antique cars that stay stationary.

A TECHNOLOGY CHANGE

There is a second force, a complementary one, that exerts downward pressure on the market for collectible cars. Although there must have been tens of thousands of buggies and horse-drawn carriages in circulation before the 1900’s, few of them are preserved for posterity. First, they are downright unsuited for modern roads and travel- think of  how treacherous carriages seem in the Amish areas of Pennsylvania, alongside modern vehicles. Horses, who have to accommodate the hard pavements, might also wish for earlier times and trails.

As autonomous cars begin to enter the market, our roads and infrastructure must update to accommodate them and make journeys safer. For awhile, roadways may be suited for both the conventional cars and self-driving ones, but investment will tip towards newer technology.

NO FUN, NO COLLECT

Older cars will also seem less safe, and simply less fun to drive.  A vintage vehicle may have been adapted to run on unleaded gasoline (post 1990’s) but it will still tend to have white tailpipe exhaust and smell  like a petro can when the engine turns over.  If the vehicle preceded the mandatory seatbelt laws of 1969, and there is no headrest, then the front seats are likely to feel slippery and unprotected. The brakes and steering will not be as responsive as today’s vehicles, making the driving experience clunky, if not downright dangerous. With all these constraints it is not surprising that Millenials will not be celebrating the possession of their family’s old Corvette Stingray. Datsun 280Z, and even the ’57 Thunderbird.

When mobility changed from bicycles and horse-driven carriages to the gas and electric powered vehicle, there seems to have been little angst about keeping the old carriages around. And, even cars that were built pre WWII became less collectible when the Silent Generation aged and lost interest.


Perhaps TV shows and movies with wild car chase scenes will keep vintage gas powered vehicles in the forefront for a while longer, but Herbie, Hollywood’s first autonomous car, is moving in.

The Flip Side of Driver Distraction

 

Driver distraction- the flip side, considers how phones can save lives, as well as take them.

But, first, some history. Back in 2003, when cellphones were in their infancy, Finnish researchers observed that mobile phone users communicated their location 70 percent of the time (e.g., “I am now at the train station”)  compared to just 5 percent for landline users. Users no longer need to enunciate their location- a GPS does that.  What users did not know back in 2003 was that cellphones would change mobility with their two-way capability.

In 2016  we continue to ride in conventional vehicles that resemble the ones on the road in 2003.  But, how we travel in vehicles is quite different, thanks to the smartphone. The obvious change is that phones have enabled carshare services to flourish, like Uber and Lyft. But, telematics have also brought a quieter, but seismic change, to the average, solo car driver.

Lives Saved by Smartphones?

Most drivers know that they should not text, talk on phones, and drive but most seem to continue to do so. Smartphones “drive us to distraction” but they are also driving the market, faster than we realize, towards autonomous cars. A fully automated car would let passengers safely  use their phones to talk, text, and do internet searches. There is a clamor to accelerate  the timeline for autonomous cars as traffic fatalities from distracted driving increase.

The NHTSA publishes the data on traffic fatalities due to driver distraction, but we know less about lives saved  by smartphones in cars.  For example, while many accidents with distracted driving involve younger drivers, particularly the age group ages 20 to 29, we do not know if this age group still have more facility interacting with a car’s electronic devices than older people. In an intriguing article, Mental Floss posits that an earlier generation of drivers found the in-car radio to be a distraction,  as people fumbled with knob controls and listened to the broadcasts. A1934 poll by the Auto Club of NY found that 56 percent deemed that the car radio to be a “dangerous distraction.”  Over time, car radios became less problematic and, the key point is that either the radios or the drivers (or both) evolved so that drivers did not have to refocus so much their attention to use them. 

Anticipating the Road Ahead

Until recently radios were vital in cars. They brought drivers news of the road conditions and traffic…usually “on the 5s or on the 8s” and of course, in a way that was not specific to the route you might be traveling on. Today, smartphones (and dashboards that have a built-in GPS) play a vital role in keeping drivers informed about road conditions. The also assist  drivers in selecting routes, and avoiding congestion. Most significantly, they provide information so that drivers can anticipate their next turn, choose the best travel lane, and be alerted for stopped traffic. There are probably many traffic accidents avoided here….we just don’t know how to count them well.

Educational Loops

Vehicle telematics have another “saving grace.” As drivers of electric cars know, haptic-type feedback helps drivers optimize their battery useage. Similar electronics can be used to improve driver skills.  Smartphones have the capability to employ GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes  to sense if a driver is  braking or accelerating sharply, traveling over or under the speed limit, or making jerky turns. 

To date, a few insurance companies have realized the potential of haptic feedback for drivers and offer driver discounts when the phone features are turned on and recorded. THe EverQuote’s Everdrive app — rates drivers on five factors: phone use, speeding, accelerating, cornering and braking. They claim a 31% improvement after using the app. There are many other examples of in-car monitoring and two-way tracking, and they appear to significantly modify how driver’s behavior. Again, There are probably many traffic accidents avoided here….we just don’t know how to count them.

To look at the flip, it is unlikely, if you rolled back to 2003, that people expected to be doing so much talking in their cars. But, it is even more surprising that the cars, in turn, are doing so much “talking” back to drivers!  The car-radio teaches us that new hardware, at the outset, brings distraction. However, it also has the capacity to evolve and bring entirely new means to scan for safety, travel conditions, and hazards beyond the windshield.

Curb Appeal For Autonomous Cars

anairportstop

There is curb appeal, and the future of autonomous cars may depend on it. For reasons that are somewhat novel to transportation planners, curb appeal has new-found meaning. If parking issues were the unintended consequence of human driven cars, curb space might become a thorn for autonomous vehicles, if left to chance.

Fortunately, there are already lessons in developing curb appeal…and they come from an unlikely place- the airport. In a previous blog we wrote about how U.S. airports could become a proving ground for autonomous vehicles.  Autonomous vehicles have the potential to speed up ground-traffic, improve air quality, and make airport pick-ups and drop-offs less stressful.

But, surprisingly, airports provide a double-sided learning curve for automotive engineers and planners.  Today’s airports already have vital traffic control measures in place, ones that will become mandatory when there are more autonomous vehicles on the road.

OPEN CURBS

But first, think city streets: both Uber and Lyft  pick-up and drop-off  passengers in a “willy-nilly” fashion- vehicles pull over to the curb, per customer demand. The pick-up point is set by the passenger, and it might be near a busy intersection or in high-speed traffic. This passenger-set location can interrupt other traffic, cause delays, and sometimes accidents. Today, as Uber tests autonomous trip-taking in Pittsburgh, they may work out a safer protocol for ride-hailing customers.

Meanwhile, most airports have controlled this sort of situation out of necessity. In a recent talk at the Volpe Transportation Center, Professor Anthony Townsend noted that curb management will become one of several policy levers for cities as they search for ways to manage pedestrian/vehicle interactions with new technology.

AIRPORT CURBS

  1. Airports do several things “right” at the curb: First, autonomous cars will come in all shapes and sizes, just like today’s vehicles. The amount of painted curb space at airports favors, multi-passenger shuttle buses- like the hotel and rental car vans that circulate. As autonomous vehicles develop, there are vital reasons for multi-passenger vehicles to get preferential treatment. The current curb configuration at airports helps these longer vehicles glide in and out. Passengers, meanwhile, come to accept that the vehicle stops are not at their door-step, but they are marked, and frequent enough so that they will not have to walk too far.

2. Airports have learned to take their curbs seriously.  Airports assiduously monitor and patrol their curb appeal, particularly after September 11th. When vehicles linger too long, or turn off their engines, the drivers are subject to fines or towing. Major airports have security forces that enforce curb control. Their presence makes airports more secure and keeps the vehicles moving.

In a future, where autonomous vehicles circle on the road, it will be key that they stay on the network and in service.

3. Third, larger airports sometimes have porters and staff at the curb to assist passengers. Although not all passengers will need this as they disembark from their autonomous vehicle, it may be of value for older people or the handicapped. New curb based concierge services might assist passengers as they board or embark. Furthermore, note that most of the vehicles that circle airports today do not charge their passengers directly. They have worked out payment transactions off-site. Keeping the vehicles moving is the first priority.

CURB (SF STYLE)

Meanwhile,  when you depart the “orderly” world of the airport curb and travel to more conventional open streets, the lack of curb control can bring chaos and conflict.

In San Francisco, for example, teachers at a public school joined with activists to protest the painting of an open, un-metered curb section to create a no-parking, white zone for tech shuttles. Again, in San Francisco, intra-city shuttles have operated for more than 30 years, but their use of curb space has remained a hot issue since 2004 when private employers began offering regional commuter shuttles, some with 45-foot long buses.  With the arrival of the autonomous car, the curb may replace parking (think Donald Shoup) as the next premium space to be coveted, rationed, and taxed. It may have all started at the airport.