Self-Driving Cars May Be Coming to Portland

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With a name like Ted Wheeler, are you really surprised that he wants to introduce a whole new type of vehicle to the streets of Portland? The Portland Mayor and Commissioner Dan Saltzman made it official when they made the announcement that the Portland Bureau of Transportation was going to start looking for companies who would be interested in testing out self-driving vehicles around the area. Wheeler is trying to get these cars out and about testing in Portland streets by the end of the year with this program that he labels the Smart Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI).

The Portland Business Alliance, which is known to be the voice of business within the region, has the mayor’s back with this new program, and the many citizens of the community are now using their imaginations as to how it will feel driving down Portland’s highways in the coming months. It wasn’t too long ago that the concept of self-driving cars was itself something imaginary. They were only something that we saw in the movies, and many of us never thought that we’d be soon driving beside them in reality.

For example, who could forget that self-driving Lexus in the 2002 movie Minority Report? Or, to go back even further, how about in Total Recall when Kaide (who was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) was being driven around by the robot taxi driver? I sure did want a driverless car when I first saw Batman’s Batmobile, and when I saw David Hasselhoff’s Pontiac Trans Am on the 1980 series Knight Rider. Still, the movie that many people feel the creators came the closest to making an on-screen, self-driving look alike to what is actually being manufactured today were those futuristic Audi’s on 2004’s I, Robot starring Will Smith.

Portland has always been known as an innovative city when it comes to obtaining new technology to make life better for its citizens. The Portland Bureau of Transportation feels that autonomous cars will actually reduce crashes, improve public transit, and lower the cost overall for individually owned vehicles.

Still they point out that certain areas of the city would be riskier than others when testing self-driving cars on the streets. For example, testing out self-driving vehicles on wide-open stretches such as the interstate would be much less riskier than having the vehicles scroll through city streets that have way more pedestrians (if you would like to read the signed SAVI Initiative or the AV Letter to Legislators here is the link to both documents).

The overall goal of the Smart Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI) is basically to get a lot of private companies who are interested in testing their self-driving vehicles in the streets of Portland to create a good number of various group proposals and policies. Mayor Wheeler had this to say in one statement:

“My goal is to have an autonomous vehicle pilot program in Portland, working for Portlanders, by the end of the year. To the inventors, investors and innovators, I’m here to say that Portland is open for business. By working with private industry, we can make sure that cutting edge technology expands access to public transit and reduces pollution and congestion.”

-PBOT News Release, 19 April 2017

Of course, absolutely everyone is not happy about self-driving cars hitting the streets of Portland. For example, on April 19th one visitor to the Bike Portland website who calls them self ‘Hello, Kitty’ commented on SAVI. “We are a long way from the time when people will own their own autonomous cars,” the commenter replied. “I think we’ll enter a phase where they work like taxis, with passengers paying by the ride. If that model works, we may never get to the point of widespread individual ownership.”

It seems that, overall, people who have cars that already contain some autonomous features are much more accepting of self-driving cars than drivers who do not currently have things like automatic braking on their vehicles. Many scientists feel that if people could begin to trust those small introductory features (adaptive cruise, for example) then there is a good chance that they could end up being able to accept a fully self-automated car.

Volkswagen once performed a very slick test to see how people really felt about riding in a self-driving car. They named the study ‘Wizard of Oz’ where they ask volunteer riders to get into an autonomous car, one that in actuality was being controlled by a real human begin. The test proved that the passengers were somewhat afraid in the first ten minutes or so but, after that, they began to feel more comfortable as they rode with the vehicle “driving itself”.

The truth is when the average person thinks about self driving cars, they look at the vehicle as a robot that they simply hope doesn’t hit anything or anybody while cruising up and down the street! Still, many people feel that these autonomous vehicles may actually reduce stress when they are behind the wheel. For example, if the car was completely driving itself, they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with stop-and-go traffic. IEEE Spectrum cited a survey that came from AAA that showed that 50% of U.S. women and 42% of men are looking forward to stress reduction possibly becoming one of the benefits of having a self-driving car. But, the overall study shows that three-quarters of citizens are still afraid of driving in and/or around these vehicles.

Even with the high hope percentages, to some people there is still something about a car completely driving itself that makes them feel a little eerie. Remember how Will Smith had that bad feeling about the robot on the movie I, Robot? I think that’s how lots of people in reality feel about how much power we are actually giving to technology over even the simplest functions in our lives. One hundred years ago, human beings were just getting used to cars. Now we are letting them drive themselves? To some folks, they feel like today’s technology is just moving way too fast for our own good.

You have to admit, if you look over at someone on the highway doing about sixty miles per hour and they were casually reading a magazine, it will startle you a little! And, what if you don’t see the magazine, but they are looking away from the road? Do you report them for texting and driving? How would you possibly know if their car is driving itself, or if they are just being irresponsible while behind the wheel? If I see someone in the driver seat gazing off into space at high speeds on the highway, I’m not going to feel bad about inconveniencing them if I call the police and report their car, plates etc., but I would apologize if I was in the wrong and they actually did have a car that could drive them autonomously.

Some of the fear for autonomous cars is generational, with Millennials being less afraid than baby boomers. The transition from vehicles that we humans have control over into completely autonomous ones is going to be a gradual process, and is going to take a lot of time for people of all ages to accept. Still, self-driving vehicles would also work in the favor of elderly citizens. Now they will be more mobile than ever with when they need to get to doctor’s appointments or make quick pickups for medication at the pharmacy.

One of the main concerns of experts is that humans will get much lazier if cars become autonomous. For example, let’s say that right now it’s extremely hot outside, and you need groceries from the store. If you could order the groceries online (with, say, your My Gofer account), have the associate at the store place the food in your car, and have your self-driving car literally do all the leg work for you, would you let it? If you had to pick up your son or daughter from football practice or cheerleading tryouts, but you were stuck at work working overtime, wouldn’t you send the car to pick them up?

But what would make this laziness at its worst would be if people stopped moving at all and started letting their cars do all of their chores. Traffic in every direction would be congested at the highest levels for miles all the time. Even still, everybody isn’t giving self-driving cars a bad rap. For example, take a company like Uber, who makes its money off its drivers and their ability to get multiple customers. Last September, they let a few riders in Pittsburgh ride in their self driving Uber cars. Is that the picture for the City of Portland in the near future? We’ll see.

 

 

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