A driverless future

Self-driving cars will be part of ride-sharing fleets, help reduce number of personal vehicles on roads to wean motorists off gasoline

Randy Iwasaki with an autonomous bus, deer decoy and other objects in a GoMentum Station warehouse.

Randy Iwasaki with an autonomous bus, deer decoy and other objects in a GoMentum Station warehouse.

Photo by Maria J. Avila for CalMatters

About this story:
It’s an abridged version of the original, published by CALmatters.org, an independent public journalism venture covering California state politics and government.

California is laying the groundwork for the next, slightly scary, phase in its push toward zero-emission transportation: self-driving cars packed with computers using finely tuned algorithms, high-definition cameras, radar and other high-tech gadgetry. What the driverless cars won’t feature: steering wheels, brake pedals and gas pedals.

Autonomous vehicles, mostly electric, are already here in a limited fashion—as a slow van, for example, to move people around a Bay Area office park. That kind of shuttle, and small delivery trucks, likely will be the first self-driving vehicles in wide use, employing GPS, 3-D imaging and other technology to process and respond to what their cameras see on the road: other cars, pavement markings, traffic signals, pedestrians, etc.

Officials say automated cars will dovetail in two ways with greenhouse-gas-cutting policies in California, where the transportation sector belches out nearly half of the state’s climate-warming emissions. They’ll be included in the fleets of ride-sharing companies, reducing the number of personal cars on the road as the state transitions to electricity-powered transportation. And they’ll almost certainly operate on batteries (though some could run on zero-emission hydrogen fuel cells), helping motorists wean themselves off gasoline.

If properly managed, the coming driverless-car revolution could address other vexing problems as well, said Daniel Sperling, who directs the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. He cited his sister’s poor peripheral vision, which prevents her from driving.

“It could lead to a dramatic improvement in safety, a dramatic improvement for mobility for the elderly, for physically disabled people and for low-income communities,” he said. For many, autonomous vehicles will mean emancipation.

In addition, computer-driven cars are expected to reduce fatalities. They will never be afflicted with road rage, will not stop off after work for one too many and won’t nod off after endless hours on the road. And productivity could rise as motorists who now lose hundreds of hours idling in traffic each year are freed from the tyranny of paying attention and can legally text, work, answer email and even watch YouTube.

But it’s a significant step from allowing testing of automated cars in protected, supervised settings to unleashing them solo on the road, which experts say remains on a far horizon. There is much to be perfected: how best to turn left in traffic, for example, a maneuver that bedevils many human drivers.

Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says human errors cause 94 percent of serious crashes, motorists are reluctant to turn over the controls to computers, telling pollsters they prefer to drive a car, not interface with one. And the potential for hacking has led some doubters to paint a future in which bad actors “weaponize” a vehicle, taking over the controls with harmful intent.

Still, California is pressing ahead. It was among the first states to contemplate a future for autonomous cars, when the Legislature in 2012 authorized the Department of Motor Vehicles to devise rules for them. Those regulations are now the nation’s most extensive; in April the DMV proposed allowing testing of autonomous lightweight delivery trucks.

California’s controversial 2017 gas-tax increase encourages the transportation department and local jurisdictions to tap road funds to build infrastructure that smart cars will require, such as traffic lights that tell them how much time remains on a green light and freeway signs that announce their messages digitally.

The DMV has doled out permits to more than 60 companies for testing autonomous cars—nearly 800 of them—on California streets. Those vehicles have traveled more than 3.6 million miles and have been involved in 177 collisions.

It’s not a free-for-all. Testing has been allowed since 2014, in nearly every case with a human “safety driver” on board, able to take over the car’s controls. And, although one company, Waymo, has a permit to conduct tests without a driver, it has yet to do so.

The future can be glimpsed at a former Navy base near the Bay Area city of Concord, converted to the nation’s largest autonomous-vehicle proving ground where computer-driven cars are let off their leashes and are free to roam across 2,100 acres. The facility, GoMentum Station, run by AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah, is an innovation hive where Silicon Valley marries its futuristic vision to the automobile industry’s traditional know-how.

California could reap economic benefits from a smart-car industry, attracting new business and jobs, officials say. Researchers forecast that investment in the technology, by traditional industry players and newcomers alike, will grow to $85 billion nationally through 2025, on top of $225 billion in spending on electric vehicles through 2023.

This transformation in transportation is taking place in a deceptively modest setting. The testing area has all the dusty charm of an abandoned town: shuttered buildings and empty parking lots, along with cattle, wild turkeys and coyotes wandering freely.

That’s perfect in the eyes of Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which is a partner in the facility. He guided his electric (though not autonomous) car along some of the 20 miles of rough streets on a recent day.

“Look at this road—it’s cracked, you can barely see the center line it’s so worn, there are weeds growing all over,” Iwasaki said with a trace of pride. When testing first began, researchers had to mow the streets because the earliest automated vehicles perceived that they had wandered off-road. The imperfections provide excellent preparation for the vehicles to navigate California’s bumpy, clogged and often chaotic streetscape.

The facility also features 45 types of intersections, various railroad crossings and a warehouse full of “targets”—vinyl deer decoys, pedestrian mannequins, bicycles and traffic cones. Such accessories help the vehicles “learn” to process what they see and make decisions through artificial intelligence.

The current generation of automated vehicles, Iwasaki reckons, is still in its 20s and has much to learn from errors on the road.

That ignorance of some learned conventions and courtesies of driving gives many motorists pause. But they can relax: California is a long way—a decade or more—from hosting truly autonomous cars on city streets.