2017 | Transportation

Council Members Get Glimpse into Future with Driverless Vehicles

Panelist says automated vehicles could upend transportation systems and labor force

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Shared pod-like autonomous vehicles could be used in cities to provide rides, according to John Bowis

via County Council presentation

Montgomery County Council members were divided Tuesday on what to make of a future in which cars drive themselves.

During a briefing on autonomous vehicles, some points appealed to the local leaders—the potential to significantly cut down on crashes, the convenience of not physically driving and the possibility that vehicles communicating wirelessly with each other could cut down on congestion by making traffic more efficient.

But then there were the potential drawbacks created by technology under development by auto manufacturers around the globe. Those include: What will truck and delivery drivers do? How will privacy concerns be addressed? Will autonomous vehicles constantly be tracked by corporations or the government?

What happens with people who refuse to stop controlling their own vehicles? How will they be accommodated? Will they prevent the benefits of driverless cars from becoming a reality if they continue to drive gas-powered, aging vehicles on roadways?

While the council debated the question, it was clear the nine members were interested in the emerging technology’s potential.

Council President Roger Berliner said local leaders must learn how to adapt their communities to the technology.

“I see this as transformative,” Berliner said. “I see this as revolutionary. I see it as a future to embrace.”

Council member Craig Rice, on the other hand, was skeptical. He said that maybe in 30 years, half of the automobile market will use driverless cars, but others will want to keep driving.

“Last time I checked, human nature does not like to cede control,” Rice said.

John Bowis, left, and Emil Wolanin, the county's deputy director of transportation, during the briefing Thursday

Berliner and Rice made their comments after the council listened to a detailed presentation from John Bowis, the CEO of the automobile dealership Chevy Chase Cars in Bethesda, and other panelists.

Bowis said he became interested in autonomous vehicles because he was concerned they’d put his dealership out of business. Over the past decade, he’s been researching the emerging technology, including attending trade shows around the world.

He noted that manufacturers already are creating vehicles in which some of the driving is controlled by a computer and soon will offer models in which the computer controls steering, braking and acceleration. The next step will be fully automated vehicles, in which human drivers are needed only in extreme situations such as a blizzard or flood.

The final step, which Bowis estimated could come in 15 to 20 years, is fully autonomous vehicles with no steering wheel, brakes or accelerator.

He said that as vehicles become automated and start communicating data with each other—such as their location, speed and route—they’ll be safer and the number of crashes will decline. As this happens, he said, more manufacturers will focus on making vehicles lighter, which will bode well for electric powertrains that often lack the power to propel large, heavy, steel vehicles.

“Cars will shift from being able to survive accidents to avoiding accidents,” Bowis said.

He estimated that the number of cars needed will be cut in half as drivers rid themselves of individually owned cars and join a shared vehicle economy, in which they can quickly order a car from a phone on their app to get to their destination.

Large trucks could be reduced in size as companies rely on autonomous trucks rather than have drivers haul the maximum loads possible, a move that could reduce wear and tear from heavy vehicles on roadways and bridges, according to Bowis.

“From an infrastructure cost standpoint, the vast majority of wear and tear on roads and bridges is because of 40,000-pound trucks,” Bowis said.

The transformation to autonomous cars also would help transit, Bowis said. He noted how people often don’t take transit due to what’s commonly referred to as the “first and last mile” problem. This is the distance it takes a transit user to get from their home to a Metro station or bus stop, then from another transit stop to their workplace or destination.

Bowis believes cheap, shared driverless vehicles will be used in specific areas to help transit users with these legs of their trips and potentially convince people considering using transit to get rid of their personal vehicles.

An example of the interior of a driverless car that could be used in the future; screenshot via County Council presentation

He presented a slide show featuring different car models that could begin appearing in the future. One slide showed a vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals in which the interior was outfitted with two large reclining chairs, including two facing the rear of the car. Another slide showed a slimmed down, shorter bus that he said riders could hail from their smartphone and take to a destination while it picked up other riders going in a similar direction.


The interior and exterior of the Volkswagen concept autonomous vehicle Sedric. Via Volkswagen website 

Other members of the panel Tuesday were more restrained in what they saw as the future potential of the vehicles.

Mark Dowd, a former senior adviser at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, told the council members to focus on the interim state—the cloudy period as driverless vehicles begin to appear on roadways and the policy discussions that will follow them. He recommended allocating limited resources to deal with specific problems as they crop up.

“Nobody’s figured out this interim state,” said Dowd, who is working with cities and technology companies to pilot driverless vehicle programs.

Emil Wolanin, the county’s deputy director of transportation, said autonomous cars could drive closer together if they communicate properly, which could allow traffic engineers to reduce lane width and add lanes where needed.

But Wolanin also detailed a number of concerns about the emerging technology. He said it’s unclear who would be liable in crashes involving driverless vehicles, whether vehicles would be tracked by the technology, how older cars would fit into the high-tech system and whether governments would pay for the roadway infrastructure needed to help vehicles operate most efficiently.

“There are huge questions that still need to be sorted through before this is viable,” Wolanin said.

Council member George Leventhal said he was concerned the technological improvements could leave low-income individuals behind. He added that he was also worried that the economy wouldn’t respond well to the corresponding potential job loss created by truck and delivery drivers being eliminated.

“The issue of economic disparities is going to be huge,” Leventhal said.

Wolanin noted half the employees at the county’s transportation department are bus drivers who could be impacted by the new technology.

Despite this, the council members seemed intrigued by the conversation and keen to follow up on it.

“This is super, I think, important,” Council member Nancy Navarro said. “It’s opened up so many areas I think we need to follow up on. The interplay of policy questions. … It’s really huge. I’m really pleased we’re having this conversation.”