Chicago is beginning to prepare for a future in which driverless cars share the road with human-driven cars, even as it debates the efficacy and safety of this new technology. Most automakers and experts believe that self-driven cars will begin operating commercially between 2018 and 2020, depending on the numerous hurdles that remain.
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Driverless cars are motored vehicles that utilize a combination of sensors, lasers, cameras, and semi-independent software to perceive the environment around them and react. Pieces of driverless car technology have been around for the better part of the past decade. Many luxury cars have utilized self-parking, automated parallel parking, emergency brakes, lane assist, and smart cruise control for years; the most famous is Tesla’s autopilot service.
Driverless cars take these technologies and go even further, by incorporating all of them into a single chassis and granting the computer greater control over the car. Uber is already testing self-driven taxis in Pittsburgh. Otto, a small start-up recently acquired by Uber, recently completed a cross-country trek by their self-driven semi-truck. Google has operated a fleet of self-driven cars in California and Nevada for years. The technology already exists, it is merely a matter of time before commercially available options are on the street.
Cities Adapt to the Technology
It is widely believed consumers won’t adopt autonomous cars that quickly. Rather, the early adopters will be taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Additionally, several car manufacturers have signaled their intention to operate their fleets of driverless cars. To date, Illinois does not prohibit the operation of driverless cars on public roadways, but neither does it expressly permit them. It is believed the Senate will pass a law requiring the Secretary of State to conduct a feasibility study.
Several experts are arguing that cities should adopt policies to discourage the private ownership of vehicles. For example, Lauren Isaac, a researcher, and manager in the sustainable transportation department at WP Parsons Brinckerhoff argues that taxes, parking fees, and additional HOV lanes could all serve to encourage the adoption of shared driverless cars. It is also believed cities can adopt different infrastructure, (i.e. smaller lanes) because driverless cars will, in theory, operate more comfortably in tighter spaces.
Cities are also advised to consider the impact on their finances. Driverless cars will presumably receive less traffic and parking citations, potentially denying the city an important source of income. Many cities, especially during periods of low tax receipts (such as in recessions or by governments that adopts “conservative” ideologies) often make up the lost revenue with increased enforcement of citations and fines.
Some cities are already adapting their streets to driverless cars. For example, many cities and states are adopting high-reflective paint and tape to delineate lanes and new lane “bumpers” that are taller and more reflective. Both of these technologies are designed to be more easily “seen” by driverless cars.
Hurdles to Overcome
A future with driverless cars is simultaneously tantalizingly close and desperately far. There are numerous technical and legal hurdles that driverless cars need to overcome before they are widely adopted.
Driverless car proponents believe that this technology is the silver bullet to stop drunken driving, car accidents, reduce insurance rates, and make the streets safer and save lives. However, there is a long way to go before that envisioned utopia is realized. The technology must evolve to adapt to the thousand-and-more situations that are not addressed in the, relatively, controlled environments in which self-driven cars operate. There is also concern that self-driven cars will have trouble adapting to rural roads because they lack many of the signs and road markings common in urban environments.
Furthermore, driverless car technology must learn how to share the road with human operators. Humans are famously difficult for self-driven cars to anticipate and judge. For example, every accident that the Google driverless cars are involved in were all the fault of human drivers, not the driverless program.
Additionally, there are numerous technical concerns. For example, driverless cars aren’t yet able to respond to every situation as well as a human, the famous example is the Tesla accident in which a car on autopilot which drove into a semi-truck, shearing the roof of the car off. Moreover, several studies note that driverless cars unable to assess and react to bike lanes. Numerous self-driven vehicles treat bike lanes as additional car lanes and are unable to perceive bicyclists who are utilizing them. There are also concerns that self-driven cars are vulnerable to hacking.
There is also growing concern among the states and cities that self-driven cars are dangerous. A Chicago alderman introduced an ordinance to the city council that would temporarily prohibit driverless cars on Chicago roads. Unfortunately, unless self-driven cars are permitted to operate in real-world conditions, with human operators, the technology will never evolve into the safe, comprehensive program demanded by regulators.