Women in Autonomy kicked off 2020 with another successful panel event, Cities: Smart, Connected, Autonomous...Or Not? which took place on January 23 and was sponsored by Arup in downtown San Francisco. This panel was all about smart cities, and featured experts on the topic from both the private and public sectors. Julia M. C. Friedlander, Senior Policy Advisor: Autonomous Vehicles at SFMTA, Jill North, Innovation and New Technology Program Manager at San Jose DOT, and Sydnee Journel, City Policy & Government Affairs Manager at Waymo sat on the panel, which was moderated by Arup’s Melissa Ruhl, Senior Transportation Planner and a Mass Transit “40 under 40”.
To begin the conversation, Melissa asked the audience a series of questions: How many of you are from the public sector? How many of you work closely with AV policy? How did you get here this evening (walked, scooted, biked, transit, car)? The poll revealed that most audience members worked in the private sector, didn’t work too closely with AV policy, and either walked or took public transit to the event that evening.
The first topic touched upon was safety. Melissa asked the panelists: How are cities and AV companies collaborating to work towards safe urban streets during this period before deployment? Sydnee responded by saying that safety is Waymo’s core mission and the top priority. Conversations are already happening at the state and federal level, but a lot of safety-related conversations happen in the communities that we drive, live, and work in. For example, before deploying in California or Arizona, Waymo worked very closely with law enforcement, police, and fire chiefs in our community to develop safety protocols for how these agencies should interact with Waymo vehicles, and how Waymo vehicles can safely operate on the roads. (Examples include Waymo’s Safety Report and Emergency Response Guide & Law Enforcement Interaction Protocol). Sydnee also outlined the experience Waymo gets from testing and validation, and that Waymo just hit over 20 million miles on public roads. In Chandler, Arizona, Waymo is already providing rides to members of the public, and to some of the City of Chandler employees. Waymo continues to work closely with city officials and follows employee guidance to determine where the safest spots are for pick up and drop off are, among other safety-related issues.
Julia pointed out that there are two dimensions of safety relevant to the evening’s discussion: one is the issue of street safety, and the other is the issue of personal safety. Since the recent release of the Uber Safety Report, there has been a lot more attention paid to assaults and sexual assaults in vehicles for hire. In regards to autonomous shared vehicles then: Is it safe to get in the back of a car with a stranger when there’s nobody present who’s in charge? How do we prevent victimization in vehicles that have no human in charge? Julia stated that “We think that public accountability is really important, for women especially. We’ve suggested that companies submit passenger safety plans that lay out all of the tools that they’re putting to use to keep people safe when they’re riding with people they don’t know and to take public comment through the regulatory process. It’s good for the industry, it’s good for the public, and it’s good for the government.”
Jill added that cities sometimes have “a hunch” about what might be causing challenges on their roadways. When SJ DOT went into their AV pilot program, one of the things they had a hunch about was that mid-block pedestrian crossings happen a lot more frequently than we know. So, through their studies, they negotiated that, as they’re driving along the 5-mile route, they would pick up mid-block pedestrian crossing information over 4 months, and that at the end, they would be able to look at the data and have a heat map of where the pedestrian activity is so that they could study it and potentially make some infrastructure changes.
San Jose and San Francisco are Vision Zero cities. Last year, San Jose had a record year of injuries and fatalities for pedestrians and cyclists on the roadways. “So, if we can partner with the private sector to tell us where to look so that we can make infrastructure improvements, that’s a really good example of using these vehicles to do good, but we’ve got to have that data exchange in order to be able to make that positive change.”
Julia followed up by saying that driving automation really does have the potential to reduce serious injuries and fatalities on our streets. One of the challenges right now is that there are no regulatory safety standards of any kind for driving automation. So in this time period when there are no standards and agreed upon ways of measuring - when are these vehicles driving more safely than good human drivers?
This idea segued perfectly into Melissa’s next topic for discussion: data. What data do cities need? Are these types of data exchanges blueprints for the future? What other needs do companies and cities have, and how do they do data exchange effectively? Julia began by saying that SFMTA has a real need for resources to do the kind of analysis being described and to research new types of collisions we may see with autonomous driving. Jill believes that map assets and plotting where all the “street furniture” is and helping cities with roadway sign disappearance (some kind of real-time alert) would be really interesting to do. “There are a lot of ways to think about data exchange, and if we think about only the traditional ways, we’re cutting out a lot of opportunities to push the envelope on what’s possible.”
And what data do companies need from cities? Sydnee responded by saying that Waymo currently operates knowing that sometimes city infrastructure, like traffic lights or stop signs, will be down and that self-driving cars need to navigate that in real-time. But certainly there are things that are nice to have. Some of that is knowing the “pain points” in cities so that they can start to test on their side and ensure that their vehicles can navigate those. “We’d love to know where the curb zones are mapped, where we can pick up and drop off, what works best for the community, etc. Moving forward, it’s also going to depend on how we communicate and collaborate with this data collectively in a way that’s most efficient for all stakeholders.”
What about data privacy? How can we protect privacy in this brand new world of digital everything while also ensuring the security of the data we have?
Julia thinks that this is a somewhat overblown issue in respect to AVs. “We have consumer privacy issues, which mostly comes from our phones. There are a lot of transportation uses for data about traffic and trips. Most of our needs do not involve remotely any personal identifying information.”
Jill added that it’s a bit more difficult to wrap our heads around the security breaches that are occurring - even Jeff Bezos got his data stolen. There’s a trade-off with new technology and devices, and this trade-off is exposing us on so many different levels. “On the autonomous vehicle side, one of the things I like to point to is that there will have to be some personally identifiable information collected as that transaction occurs.”
Arguably, the climate crisis is the most pressing issue of our time. We know we must make dramatic changes to our way of life in the coming ten years. How can we use AVs to help mitigate or adapt to climate change?
Jill said: “Connected, Shared, Autonomous, and Electric. As we look forward to the future, we’re looking for something that achieves all four of those goals.” Julia added that in San Francisco, there are many generations who have invested immense amounts of tax money in transit services. “We have a growing population with a growing job base with streets that cannot grow. So we think of congestion and climate change together. What we need in our transportation system is to move more people, faster. Most people think that driving automation by itself will make the climate catastrophe worse.”
Julia continued: “TNCs (Transportation Network Companies), such as Uber and Lyft, were conceived with a vision that they would be a climate solution, but it turns out they are a climate problem. Compared to the average passenger vehicles on the road in California, they generate 50% more greenhouse gas per passenger mile traveled. We can’t tolerate that with automated vehicles.” So what does that mean for AV policy? According to Julia: “They have to be shared and they need to facilitate and support transit use, and not duplicate transit where there’s high capacity transit. So there are all kinds of opportunities for the industry to deliver transit-supporting, shared usage. What we are eager to see is the demonstration.”
Syndee agrees that electric cars are a necessity, and that’s why Waymo’s fleet is all Hybrid or all-electric. But she poses the questions: As we head in that direction, what is the EV infrastructure that will be available? Will there be enough charging stations, and what are the sources for that charging? In terms of the questions around congestion and how autonomous vehicles will impact cities: “I do believe that there is a world where you have autonomous vehicles and that it does make our streets safer and more efficient. When we think about congestion and self-driving cars - yes, it’s about shared and electric - but it is also about the transit system that is in place in each of those cities. An autonomous vehicle in a city with a robust transit network can help bridge the last mile. Whereas, in a city that lacks reliable public transit, AVs will be counted on for the entire transit experience."
Speaking of infrastructure, Melissa then brought up the next topic: curb management. How do we deal with curb management in an autonomous future? How do we fairly and safely distribute curb space? How do we ensure proper use of it?
The SFMTA is very close to releasing a new curb management strategy in San Francisco. “It’s easy to get lost in thoughts about super technical solutions,” says Julia. “But we think that the issue starts with a real analysis of the community values. Our colleagues have taken a look at all the different uses for the curb and identified based on adjacent land uses: what are the priorities? It’s going to help us think about how to remake our streets and reflect our current needs and values.”
Jill admits that the current curb situation is a “war zone.” We have to re-think what it’s going to look like. We have to re-think the vehicle code, we have to re-think the curb. Sydnee agreed that we have to reimagine curb space for new technologies and use cases, and that there needs to be a mechanism for all relevant stakeholders to collaboratively work through the problem and seek solutions.
The last question Melissa posed to our expert panel was: what is your greatest hope for urban mobility?
Sydnee’s personal vision is that in the future, traffic fatalities due to human error (which accounts for 94% of crashes) are removed.
Julia added that there are a lot of people who have significant limitations on their mobility for a variety of reasons. So her vision would be about serving the most in need first. “We need to think about transportation from an equity perspective, and be adding transportation and mobility options for the people that have the least, not just improving the convenience for people who already have a lot of transportation options.”
Jill would like to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to her without being afraid (such as biking to work).
After that, Melissa opened up the discussion to the audience for Q&A. We had an abundance of audience questions, including: how are we making sure that infrastructure is moving forward? Will there be a community investment in maintaining the AVs? And, what about reducing speed limits in congested, downtown areas (enabling Waymo to bring back the Firefly)?
Women in Autonomy's next panel, Eliminating Hidden Bias in Autonomy and Beyond, is sponsored by Ford and NVIDIA, and will take place on March 24 at GTC 2020.
In addition to our evening panel, NVIDIA has worked with Ford to offer our members complimentary access to the conference and an opportunity to participate in a by-invitation-only training. In order to attend the panel, you must be registered as a GTC attendee.
Registration information is coming soon! Subscribe to our mailing list to get early access to complementary conference or training passes!