All Autonomous Roads Lead to Pasadena

The future is much, much closer than most people realize. Driverless cars are almost here, and their impact is already being felt.

Published : Wednesday, November 15, 2017 | 6:44 AM

Driverless cars seem to many people to be a blurry, far-off sci-fi idea. In fact, they are right around the corner.

Autonomous vehicles, once the stuff of Jetsons fame and thought by most people to be far off on the horizon, are already having an impact on Pasadena.

Anticipating drastic changes brought on by the burgeoning autonomous vehicle and transportation systems industry, Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek and at least one City Councilmember are now hesitant to consider the idea of building new underground parking garages in Pasadena.

Why? Because, as they read the signs, the need for for mass parking structures may be drastically diminished within the next 10 years.

“The idea of spending double-digit millions, big dollars, to build a structure that might be obsolete in 10 years when you’re paying for over 30 [years], is not very plausible,” Tornek said earlier this month, referring to suggestions that an underground parking structure be built in the Playhouse District as a way to convert a parking lot into more green space without losing the parking spots.

In Pasadena city planning, education and business, the coming autonomous vehicle revolution is big news.

Pasadena-based ArtCenter College of Design, long synonymous with automobile design, is now collaborating with UCLA to study the environment that our new autonomous cars will be driving in, because the roads we drive on today were designed and built for cars with human drivers. Stop lights, road signs , even billboards could be phased out, perhaps in the next generation.

Adding to the reality, Pasadena-based Strobe, Inc. along with its LIDAR technology was purchased by General Motors last month. Strobe’s technology —Light Imaging Detection And Ranging—helps determine accurate distance and velocity information for autonomous vehicles, a crucial part of navigation for self-driving vehicles.

Another example of autonomous technology coming out of Pasadena and soon to be hitting the streets is Coast Autonomous, a Pasadena-based software and technology company scheduled to supply Tampa, Florida with its first autonomous driverless shuttle, set to begin serving commuters on a trial basis in January, 2018, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) announced.

In fact, a leading auto industry executive actually said last week that we are seeing the “last days of the auto industry as we know it.”

According to a recent Department of Motor Vehicles report late last month, 43 companies in California have applied for permits to start testing autonomous vehicles on California streets, including Apple and Samsung.

There are so many test vehicles on streets that the DMV is now publishing accident reports and updates on other autonomous vehicle related topics.

How real is all of this? How soon will Colorado Boulevard be filled with cars and no drivers?

According to an October 26 Reuters article, “Global tech firms such as Apple Inc, Facebook, Alphabet Inc, Amazon and China’s Huawei are spending heavily to develop and offer AI-powered services and products in search of new growth drivers.”

The article went on to say, “Nvidia Corp chief executive Jensen Huang said on Thursday artificial intelligence would enable fully automated cars within 4 years.”

Scott Keough, the head of Audi of America said, “We’re talking highly automated cars, operating in numerous conditions, in 2020.”

A November 3 article from the Denver Post says, “Driverless cars will be a boon to the poor, the elderly and the disabled.”

According to one ArtCenter professor, given the extraordinary technological advances of the last 25 years, this technological advancement is almost here, and much further along than you might think .

“We have the technology, actually, for autonomous vehicles,” says Lucian Rosca of the ArtCenter College of Design’s graduate transportation department, “but we don’t have it working perfectly yet. If you remember during the 90s, when we were sending emails and pictures, and pictures could not be too big and so on? It’s going to take some time, but actually we progress very fast.”

According to Rosca, what actually holds the development of autonomous vehicles back is legislature on one side, and perhaps the public’s acceptance on the other, “because a lot of people don’t really know what autonomous vehicles are, and how they function, and certainly to have people using them, we need acceptance from the public.”

As Rosca explains, ArtCenter and the UCLA Department of Architecture & Urban Design are currently engaged in a pilot project looking at the environment that autonomous cars will actually drive in.

“We have traffic lights, traffic signs and so on, all these lanes, parking spots, all these are for our way of driving today,” said Rosca. “When we talk about autonomous vehicles, they’re computers on wheels. They don’t need all these, because they don’t have eyes and ears like people have, and also they don’t communicate the way we communicate.”

Rosca explained, “They [autonomous cars] communicate with 0 and 1, they are computers. That means, we see also a very dramatic change in infrastructure, not just cars themselves. We look at the infrastructure of the future. We also look at the management of the traffic. Traffic would be totally different.”

Rosca went on to say that computers don’t need lanes, they need just paths, and that we would see a totally different flow of traffic than we see today.

Some of the problems these companies are working out is situational, “the most difficult problems are ones where you have to make decisions about the lives of people inside or outside the vehicle,” said ArtCenter professor Tim Brewer.

Brewer went on to point out that the car has to act and it has a choice of minimizing harm to their occupants of the vehicle or minimizing harm to the people external to the vehicle, what do you do?

Brewer questioned, “does the car run itself into a guardrail? And avoid the people on the street and likely perhaps injuring the people inside the vehicle? Or does it do something else that harms people on the street and, what does it prioritize?”

ArtCenter student Calvin Ku, is involved with the next level of that thinking, says ArtCenter professor Tim Brewer. What about the driver who still wants to drive?

According to Brewer, Ku asked, “Is there something we could do in this future for the driving enthusiast? Or do they have to be re-delegated to tracks or specific roads but it can’t be a part of the general population of autonomous vehicles?

“He realized that these autonomous vehicles have an expert driver on board,” explained Brewer. “The computer that knows how to drive that vehicle is an expert driver, it’s just driving very professionally and legally.”

But, Ku asked, “What if we could have a different relationship with the vehicle? If the autonomous vehicle does something, and then you do something and you go around a particular set of corners, a particular way, maybe challenge each other or maybe the autonomous vehicle teaches you something about how to be a better driver, or maybe the autonomous vehicle learns something from your technique on how to be a better driver.”

Ku experimented with having two levers, Brewer explained. “Maybe one of the controls is an aggression control, to be more aggressive or less aggressive. Maybe the other control has to deal with how tightly to control the line, maybe a little looser, maybe a little tighter. Or who knows what it could be. So he explored a lot of different things, he doesn’t have a final conclusion on it but it’s a fascinating study of finding a place where, and there’s a lot of driving enthusiasts, finding a place in the autonomous era for them.”

Sociologists agree that the implications of an autonomous driving world are massive.

We won’t drive, we won’t read billboards, we might not even see other drivers. Cars will literally be living rooms, dens, studies, and bedrooms on wheels.

Brewer said he would encourage the public to be open-minded about this coming era of autonomy and look for opportunities, and to participate in some of the test drives and experience what it’s like to be in a different world where there’s no apparent driver.

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