Decreased Mobility

An IBM report released earlier this month revealed some significant changes in consumer sentiment and public willingness to use certain mobility methods as a result of COVID-19. The study polled more than 25,000 adults during the month of April. Of the respondents that regularly used buses, subways, or trains: 20 percent said they no longer would utilize those options; an additional 28 percent said they would use public transportation less often. 17 percent of people surveyed said they will use their personal vehicle more; 25 percent of that 17 percent said it will be their exclusive method of transportation going forward.

Consumer perception of public transportation and the ways we move has shifted dramatically in just three short months. These results indicate that a significant number of U.S. consumers intend to drastically change the ways they travel in the aftermath of COVID-19. If these sentiments remain in place in the coming years, the decrease in public transportation ridership would mean decreased fee collections, which can lead to several options for cities to fund public transportation, including (1) an increase in ridership fees, (2) an increase in general tax revenue devoted to public transportation, or (3) a decrease in service offerings. All of these options are undesirable, especially in cities where private vehicle ownership is low, and many workers may have no option other than public transportation. The cities with the largest annual ridership numbers for subway or metro are New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area.


Annual Metro/ Subway ridership (2019)

(2018 Estimates)

Percent of Households without a vehicle (2016)

New York, NY

2,274 Million



Washington, D.C.

237 Million




218 Million




152 Million



San Francisco

123 Million



Removing 20 percent of public transportation riders completely and decreasing the usage of nearly 30 percent more would be financially catastrophic for any city transit authority. In 2019, the New York MTA brought in nearly $17 Billion. The current decrease in ridership (down 74 percent) has already required the MTA to seek billions in aid from the federal government and led to a first-ever decrease in working hours to sanitize trains overnight. A sustained decrease of more than 30 percent of rides per year would require a systemic overhaul of the metro system or some other drastic measures.

While some respondents indicated they will use their personal vehicles more, it is clear that in cities where public transportation is most utilized, many people do not have access to a personal vehicle. This will place a difficult decision on many underserved and minority communities: return to using public transportation and face an elevated risk of potential infection, struggle to find a job closer to home to avoid transportation, or save for a personal vehicle to avoid public transportation. Owning a vehicle in major cities can be prohibitively expensive for low-income households, and affordable parking can be nearly impossible to find. As transit authorities raise prices to compensate for lost riders, more riders may depart as the cost of ridership becomes too high for their budget. This could lead to a death spiral for public transportation. These systems simply cannot sustain 90 percent ridership decreases.

The same IBM survey also found that the decision to buy a personal vehicle after COVID-19 was “greatly” influenced by a constraint on their personal finances for more than 33 percent of respondents. 25 percent said they would hold off on buying a vehicle for more than 6 months. So for many people who wish to stop using public transportation, there is no safe and affordable option immediately available. Some may point to rideshare services as a safer alternative to the cramped quarters of public transportation. But according to the survey, of the respondents who used rideshare apps and services already, more than 50 percent said they would use the services less, or stop entirely. Uber and Lyft are going to see an incredible drop off in ridership; Uber and Lyft both halted their carpooling services in March. Uber trips were already down 70 percent in some cities in March. These numbers are sure to increase, and the companies will recover financially due to the increase in demand for UberEats during this crisis. However, the surge in ridership seen in recent years will take many years to reach 2019 peaks.

Finally, the IBM survey also asked about working from home, a topic I wrote about at the end of March.  Around 40 percent of respondents indicated they feel strongly that their employer should provide employees the option to opt-in to remote working from home going forward. 75 percent indicated they would like to continue working from home at least occasionally, and more than 50 percent indicated they would like working from home to be their primary work method. Perhaps companies will heed the desires of their employees. It is unlikely that many companies will offer the “work from home, forever” option that Twitter and Facebook have provided. But almost certainly we will see an increase in the ability of employees to work from home, now that their ability to do so has been demonstrated. Especially in cities like New York and San Francisco where the annual cost of office space is more than $13,000 per employee. If more tech companies follow Facebook’s lead and allow many employees to work remotely forever, we may even see housing prices start to decrease in some select areas and a further decrease in public transportation ridership in cities like San Francisco.

Mobility is going to change immensely once this crisis is over, whenever that may be. Public transportation must be overhauled in its current processes and operations if it hopes to regain public confidence and achieve ridership numbers anywhere near 2019 levels during the next decade.

Cities, Streets, and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and our memories of the “before time” feel ever more distant, some have begun to wonder how this crisis and its aftermath could change how and where people live. Will people abandon expensive and dense major cities for smaller cities, suburbs or even small towns? On the one hand, I’ll admit that living in a small city like Ann Arbor has made weathering the lock down rather easy, which could lead credence to these ideas. Personally, I’ve had no issues finding supplies, or taking a walk without running into too many other people (though my apartment building’s shared laundry rooms are now a fraught location). Of course, Ann Arbor, a wealthy, educated college town with excellent access to medical care has a lot of resources other cities do not, so it may not be the best example.

Alternatively, there are those who argue our cities won’t actually change that much post-COVID-19, and there are even ways that the outbreak could make cities better (with the proper investment). Cities have survived disease outbreaks for millennia, and given that so much of our economy, culture, and infrastructure is built around cities it would be hard to seismically shift to some other model of living. Yet the economic upheaval that the pandemic has ushered in will no doubt influence where and how people live, and could last a good deal longer than the disease itself.

So what changes are well already seeing in cities, and what could that indicate about where we’re heading? In a number of cities, including New York, Seattle, and Oakland, are closing streets to open up more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Streets could also be closed to provide more outdoor space for restaurants, to help them reopen while preserving some measure of social distancing. New Zealand has gone as far as to make such street alterations national policy. Cities and towns in that nation are able to apply for funding to immediately expand sidewalks and modify streets, with the national government covering 90% of the cost. Some suggest these closures and modifications should be permanent – that we should take this opportunity to create more walkable and bikeable cities now, when we have the chance. In many ways these modified streets are similar to proposals for automated vehicle (“AV”) dominated cities. Supporters believe that wide adoption and deployment of AVs would mean more streets could have one lane of traffic in each direction, with the extra space turned over to alternative uses. The current demands of social distancing dovetail with those ideas – could cities use the current crisis to prepare themselves for an autonomous future? Given the difficulty of building new infrastructure, it may not be a bad idea to get ahead of the curve.

As noted by Phillip in a post earlier in the crisis, another effect of the global lockdown has been improved environmental conditions in cities around the globe. In India, for example, where cities have significant pollution problems, massive reductions in travel have led to clear skies. For the first time, we are seeing clear examples of what cleaner energy production could bring (pun intended). Such improvements could lead residents to demand continued reductions in emissions even after this crisis passes. These and other changes made to cities in the short term to cope with lockdowns and social distancing could dictate the future of urban design, but only if governments and citizens are willing to adopt them and protect them from being undone once the crisis passes.

P.S. Those of you who are interested in buying a bike to help navigate the new socially-distanced world may run into an issue – just like masks, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper, bikes are now becoming a scarce resource in some places.

For the past two years, the purpose of this blog and the Law and Mobility Program has been to peak around the corner and see what’s next. We have explored the legal and policy ramifications of emerging transportation technologies and tried to figure out how those technologies, be they automated vehicles, e-scooters, delivery drones, or even flying cars, will fit into our existing transportation and legal systems.

As it has with so many aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated our ability to look forward – the world to come is harder to predict. How close to “normal” will we get without a vaccine or treatment? If a significant portion of the workforce moves to remote work (Twitter, for example, is going to a permanent remote work option), what does that mean for our transportation system? Will people retreat from large, dense cities? As the pandemic disrupts state and local budgets, what will happen to transportation budgets? Right now, there are no clear answers.

Going forward, this blog and the Law and Mobility Program will remain focused on the future, with a keen eye on today. We will still explore new technologies and their ramifications, while also seeking a better understanding of how the current crisis is altering the mobility landscape. Later today we’ll publish the first of a series of blog posts dealing with some of the specific disruptions and changes that are already occurring. We hope you’ll enjoy these posts and, as always, invite you to join us in the conversation by submitting posts of your own – outside blog post submissions (of 500-1,000 words) are always welcome at (all submissions are evaluated for publication by our staff).

Up to now, the way forward for roadways-based, commercial automated mobility remained somewhat of a mystery. Surely, we would not see AVs in the hand of individual owners anytime soon – too expensive. “Robotaxi” fleets commanded by the likes of Uber and Lyft seemed the most plausible option. There was, at least in appearance, a business case and that most industry players seemed to be putting their efforts towards an automated version of common passenger cars.

Over the course of 2019, the landscape slowly but steadily changed: public authorities started to worry more about safety and the prospects of seeing fleets of “robotaxis” beyond the roads of Arizona, Nevada or California seemed remote. This is how automated shuttles found their way to the front of the race towards a viable business model and a large-scale commercial deployment.

Many now mock these slow-moving “bread loafs,” ridiculing their low speed and unenviable looks. However, some of these comments appear slightly disingenuous. The point of the shuttles is not “to persuade people to abandon traditional cars with steering wheels and the freedom to ride solo.” I don’t see any of these shuttles driving me back home to Montreal from Ann Arbor (a 600 miles/1000km straight line). But I see them strolling around campuses or across airport terminals. The kind of places where I don’t quite care about the good looks of whatever is carrying me around, and also the kind of place where I wouldn’t take my car to anyway. There might be much to say about how certain electric vehicles marketed directly to the end-user failed because of their unappealing design, but I don’t plan to buy a shuttle anytime soon.

Looks aside, these automated “turtles” have a major upside that the “hare” of, say, Tesla (looking at you, Model 3!) may not dispose of. Something which happens to be at the top of the agenda these days: safety. While notoriously hard to define in the automated mobility context (what does safety actually imply? When would an AV be safe?) removing speed from the equation immediately takes us into a safer territory; public authorities become less concerned, and more collaborative, agreeing to fund early deployment projects. Conversely, scooters irked a lot of municipal governments because they go too fast (among other things). As a result, there was little public appetite for scooters and operators were forced to withdraw, losing their license or failing to become commercially viable.

As a result, it is the safe vein that various industry players decided to tap. Our turtles are indeed slow, with a top speed of 25mph, usually staying in the range of 15 to 20 mph. This is no surprise: that is the speed after which braking means moving forward several dozen if not hundreds of feet. Within that lower bracket, however, a vehicle can stop in a distance of about two cars (not counting reaction time) and avoid transforming a collision into a fatality. Hence, it goes without saying that such shuttles are only suitable for local transportation. But why phrase that as an only? Local transportation is equally important. Such shuttles are also suitable for pedestrian environments. Outside of the US, pedestrians have their place on the road – and many, many roads, across the globe, are mostly pedestrian. Finally, they can also be usefully deployed in certain closed environments, notably airports. In many places, however, deployment of such shuttles on roadways might require some additional work – creation of lanes or changes to existing lanes – in order to accommodate their presence. Yet the same observation can also be made for “robotaxis,” however, and the adaptations required there may be much more substantial. The limited applications of automated shuttles may be what, ultimately, makes them less appealing than our Tesla Model 3 and its promises of freedom.

Overall, turtle shuttles appear closer to a marginal development from widely used rail-based automated driving systems, rather than a paradigm shift. That might precisely be what makes them a good gateway towards more automation in our mobility systems; there is wisdom in believing that we will have a better grasp of the challenges of automated mobility by actually deploying and using such systems, but it is not written anywhere that we need to break things to do so.

It feels like much longer than two months ago that I first wrote about the coronavirus, Covid-19. At the time of my first blog post on the subject, the world had just witnessed China quarantine more than 50 million people in four weeks. The United States is now under conditions that significantly exceed that number. As of March 26th, more than 20 U.S. states have imposed either statewide orders, or partial orders, for residents to stay at home and shelter in place. Currently, more than 196 million citizens are being urged to stay at home. Social Distancing, Zoom, and Flatten the Curve have become household names and phrases overnight. As I write this, millions of citizens are entering their second or third week of working from home.

As the United States reckons with this outbreak’s severity and we learn to live at a distance, it is crucial to reflect on the unintended secondary effects that have become apparent from en masse “work from home” (“WFH”). Perhaps we can learn something. Perhaps it is just refreshing to note them. Perhaps it could provide inspiration for solutions to many problems we are already facing or will one day face.

Traffic Reductions

Traffic in various cities across the world has decreased dramatically. With millions of people working from home for the foreseeable future, there are fewer cars on the road during traditional rush hour peaks. Traffic in Chicago is moving as much as 60% faster; traffic in Los Angeles is moving 35% more quickly than usual.  8am LA rush hour traffic was flowing around 60 miles per hour, while it typically dips down to 30 mph. Roughly the same increase in speed was measured during the evening commute hour.

Pollution Reduction

A decrease in rush hour traffic was an easily predicted effect of mass-quarantining. One unintended side effect is the sharp decrease in pollution over major cities. There has been a severe downturn in Nitrogen Dioxide (“NO2“) — a significant pollutant released from the burning of fossil fuels — over Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. The same significant drop in NO2 has been seen over China around Wuhan, Shanghai, and Beijing.

This decrease in pollution and an increase in traffic speeds reflect the anticipated benefits of autonomous vehicles. One of the benefits of AVs is the decrease in emissions that come from daily commutes. Most autonomous vehicle manufacturers and testers use electric vehicles because the electrical power the advanced computer systems draw exceeds the capacity of most car batteries. An increase in electric vehicles on the roads will decrease fossil fuels being burned while driving, which would likely lead to a reduction in pollutants (like NO2) over concentrated areas over roadways.

Another benefit of AVs is the decrease in traffic time. Vehicles the communicate with other vehicles (“V2V”) or that communicate with infrastructure (“V2I”) will, over time, allow for fewer slowdowns and higher average driving speeds. Because vehicles can communicate when they are slowing down, speeding up, turning, exiting, etc. the flow of highway traffic will become smoother as fewer interruptions cause human drivers to hit the breaks or come to a standstill. AVs that platoon in synchronization can also increase traffic speeds.

One of the much-touted benefits of autonomous vehicles is the increased productivity that a driver can experience by freeing up their attention and hands from needing to drive and monitor their vehicle. Although not to the same scale, faster traffic speeds from increased WFH translates into less time wasted on a commute and more time with family and at work. The same is true of WFH; my daily commute has changed from a 15-minute walk to the law school to a 15-second walk from the kitchen up to my desk. 

One metric I am interested in seeing after the Covid-19 social distancing and en masse WFH is worker productivity while working from home. If workers are similarly (or more) productive when working from home, we could see an uptick in companies allowing employees to WFH weekly, or even on an unlimited basis (subject to approval of some sort). Similarly, if some of the benefits that AVs seek to bring — decreased traffic, reduced pollution, increased productivity — can be achieved through en masse WFH, should AV proponents, and others interested in these benefits, be advocating for more WFH in other contexts? Companies could even use WFH to advertise their “green” efforts, by touting the number of driven miles and pollutants they eliminate annually by requiring employees to WFH periodically.

If we anticipate future events like Covid-19, where social distancing becomes crucial, keeping WFH skills sharp may become a necessity. Allowing or requiring workers to stay home one or more days per week could be a method to keep those skills sharp: being productive at home, efficient communication online, and keeping in contact with employees and supervisors. As this crisis continues to unfold, it is essential to remember that this round of social distancing will not last forever. As a country, we will emerge from this crisis changed. How we change is interesting to project, but it is similarly essential to aid in preventing future problems and adapting future solutions.

Last week, the United States declined to sign the “Stockholm Declaration,” an international agreement to set targets for reducing road fatalities. The reason given for not signing the declaration was the U.S.’s objection to items within the document that referenced climate change, equity, gender equality, and other issues. For context, here is the paragraph they are referencing:

[Signatories resolve to] “[a]ddress the connections between road safety, mental and physical health, development, education, equity, gender equality, sustainable cities, environment and climate change, as well as the social determinants of safety and the interdependence between the different [Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”)], recalling that the SDGs and targets are integrated and indivisible;”

This is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the American government, and ignores the real social, economic, and climate issues that are deeply tied to transportation. This piece is the first in a series, in which I will touch on how transportation, especially the emerging mobility technologies we usually cover, are entwined with issues that the current Administration sees as beyond the scope of road safety. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a few examples offered as proof of the complexity of the issues. For today we’ll consider the environmental issues that are tied to road safety.

Road Safety and the Environment

Much has been made of how CAVs and other new mobility technologies can reduce greenhouse emissions via electrification of transportation and gained efficiencies through coordination between vehicles and infrastructure. The pursuit of safer roads via CAV deployment is also the pursuit of “greener” roads. This is especially important in the face of a recent study that found the use of rideshares like Lyft and Uber are increasing emissions – by an estimated 69%. The study found that rideshare usage shifted trips that would have been undertaken by mass transit, biking, or walking. Any discussion of the future of road safety, especially in cities, will have to include discussions of ridesharing, and how to better integrate biking, walking, and things like micro-mobility services into our streets, an integration that has important environmental implications.

The deployment of electric vehicles, something that appears to be a goal of major auto manufacturers, is another area in which road safety and the environment meet. To start with, these vehicles reduce overall vehicle emissions, which themselves are a health hazard. While not traditionally part of the road safety discussion, recent studies have shown that outdoor air pollution reduces the average life expectancy world-wide by almost 3 years. Including emissions in the safety conversation is especially important as vehicles are now the largest carbon producers.

Electric vehicles have other positive safety features – their large batteries, for example, make them less likely to roll over in an accident. On the other hand, electric vehicles traveling at low speeds can be harder for pedestrians and others to hear. In response, NHTSA has now mandated that EVs be equipped to generate artificial sound to warn those around them.

These are just a few ways in which environmental issues cross over into road safety, as recognized by the signatories to the Stockholm Declaration, and it is imperative the U.S. government take them into consideration rather than dismissing them outright.

The California DMV recently released several 2019 reports from companies piloting self-driving vehicles in California. Under state law, all companies actively testing autonomous vehicles on California public roads must disclose the number of miles driven and how often human drivers were required to retake control from the autonomous vehicle. Retaking control is known as “disengagement.” The DMV defines disengagements as:

“[D]eactivation of the autonomous mode when a failure of the autonomous technology is detected or when the safe operation of the vehicle requires that the autonomous vehicle test driver disengage the autonomous mode and take immediate manual control of the vehicle.”

Because of the proprietary nature of autonomous vehicle testing, data is not often publicly released;  this is one of the few areas where progress data is made publicly available. The 60 companies actively testing in California cumulatively traveled 2.88 million miles in 2019. The table below reports the various figures for some of the major testers in California.

Company Vehicles Active in CA Miles Driven in 2019 Engagements Engagements per 1,000 miles Average Miles Between Engagements
Waymo 153 1.45 Million 110 0.076 13,219
GM Cruise 233 831,040 68 0.082 12,221
Apple 66 7,544 64 8.48 118
Lyft 20 42,930 1,667 38.83 26
Aurora ? 13,429 142 10.57 95
Nuro 33 68,762 34 0.494 2,024 22 174,845 27 0.154 6,493
Baidu 4 108,300 6 0.055 18,181
Tesla 0 0 0 0 0

What these numbers make clear is that there are several contenders who have made significant progress in the autonomous vehicle space, and there are some contenders which are not yet so competitive. Companies like Waymo, GM Cruise, and Baidu (which also tests extensively in China) have made incredible progress in decreasing the frequency at which a driver must engage with an automated vehicle. Others, like Apple, Lyft, and Aurora, while making progress, are nowhere near as sophisticated in avoiding engagements yet. Noticeably Tesla, the manufacturer frequently in the news for its “Autopilot” feature, does not test on public roads in California. The company says it conducts tests via simulation, on private test tracks, public roads around the world, and “shadow-tests” by collecting anonymized data from its customers during normal driving operations.

What these numbers seem to illustrate is that the autonomous vehicle industry is not all on par, as many often believe. It is often said that Henry Ford did not conceive the idea of an automobile; he perfected it. Similarly, companies like Waymo or GM may be the first to perfect autonomous vehicles, and gain an incredible market advantage once they do so. They are striving to be the Ford’s in this space, while others look like they’re still manufacturing carriages. However, despite these impressive numbers from a select few, the companies themselves think these metrics “do[] not provide relevant insights” (per Waymo) and that the idea that they give any “meaningful insight . . . is a myth” (per GM Cruise).

Why are the head and shoulder leaders on these metrics saying that they provide very little indication of progress on the technology? Disengagement reports may not be the best way for these companies to build trust and credibility in their products. They are only transparent in that they provide some data with no detail or context.

I was having a conversation about these disengagement numbers with a colleague* this week, and the topic of driver distraction arose. In the CA tests, the driver is constantly alert. Once these vehicles are in use for the general public, a notification to engage may not be effective if the driver is distracted. One reason these numbers do not provide particularly useful information is that for the metrics to be useful, at least two things must be true:

  • If the vehicle does not indicate it needs to disengage, no technical errors have been made; and
  • The driver is paying attention and can quickly engage when necessary.

In California testing, the drivers behind the vehicle are always alert and ready to take over. They may take over when the vehicle indicates they must, because of a malfunction or poor conditions. The driver can also engage when the vehicle has done something incorrectly, yet does not indicate that the driver needs to take over. This could include veering into a lane or failing to recognize a pedestrian.

One of the allures of autonomous vehicles is that a driver may not need to be 100 percent engaged for the vehicle to function correctly. However, current technology has not yet achieved this  result, as reiterated this past week by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB is an independent federal agency, which lacks enforcement power, but makes recommendations which are considered thorough and are taken seriously by policymakers.

The NTSB put forward many findings on Tuesday, February 25th regarding a Tesla crash that killed a California driver in March 2018. (A synopsis of the NTSB report and findings can be found here.) The facts of the crash involved driver of a Tesla in Autopilot mode, which struck a barrier between the highway and a left exit lane. NTSB found that the Tesla briefly lost sight of the lines marking the highway lane, and started to follow the right-most lane marker of the exit lane (because of fading on the highway lines) caused the vehicle to enter the “gore area.” This same action had apparently occurred several times in this exact vehicle, but the driver on previous trips was paying attention and was able to correct the vehicle. This time, the driver was playing a mobile game and did not correct the vehicle, causing the crash. Here was how NTSB presented three of their findings:

The Tesla’s Autopilot lane-keeping assist system steered the sport utility vehicle to the left into the neutral area of the gore, without providing an alert to the driver, due to limitations of the Tesla Autopilot vision system’s processing software to accurately maintain the appropriate lane of travel. (emphasis added)

The driver did not take corrective action when the Tesla’s Autopilot lane-keeping assist system steered the vehicle into the gore area, nor did he take evasive action to avoid the collision with the crash attenuator, most likely due to distraction by a cell phone game application. (emphasis added)

The Tesla Autopilot system did not provide an effective means of monitoring the driver’s level of engagement with the driving task.

Here we see a combined failure of both (1) and (2) presented above, combined with an inability to adequately monitor driver engagement. The vehicle took an action which it assumed to be correct, and thus did not notify the driver to take over. This combined with the driver not paying attention, failing to notice the need to disengage, and resulted in the crash. This tragic accident highlights that the AV industry still has many areas to improve before higher SAE level vehicles are ready for mass adoption. (The ADAS on the Tesla was SAE Level 2)

As I discussed last week, the federal Department of Transportation has taken a rather hands-off approach to regulation of automated vehicles, preferring to issue guidance rather than mandatory regulations. The  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) criticized this approach in their Tesla crash findings. The NTSB wrote that there has been “ Insufficient Federal Oversight of Partial Driving Automation Systems.”

The US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have taken a nonregulatory approach to automated vehicle safety. NHTSA plans to address the safety of partial driving automation systems through enforcement and a surveillance program that identifies safety-related defect trends in design or performance. This strategy must address the risk of foreseeable misuse of automation and include a forward-looking risk analysis.

Because the NTSB lacks enforcement power, it cannot compel industry actors or other government agencies to take any action. It can only perform investigations and make recommendations. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt had much to say regarding distracted driving, the AV industry, and the lack of government regulations in the hearing on Tuesday, February 25th.

“In this crash we saw an over-reliance on technology, we saw distraction, we saw a lack of policy prohibiting cell phone use while driving, and we saw infrastructure failures, which, when combined, led to this tragic loss,”

“Industry keeps implementing technology in such a way that people can get injured or killed . . . [I]f you own a car with partial automation, you do not own a self-driving car. Don’t pretend that you do.”

“This kind of points out two things to me. These semi-autonomous vehicles can lead drivers to be complacent, highly complacent, about their systems. And it also points out that smartphones manipulating them can be so addictive that people aren’t going to put them down,”

Chairman Sumwalt is right to be frustrated. The DOT and NHTSA have not regulated the AV industry, or ADAS as they should. Tragic accidents like this can be avoided through a variety of solutions; better monitors of driver engagement than torque-sensing steering wheels, lock-out functions for cell-phones when driving, stricter advertising and warning regulation by companies offering ADAS. Progress is being made in the AV industry, and automated vehicles are getting smarter and safer every day. But incidents like this that combine a failure of technology, regulation, and consumer use, do not instill public confidence in this incredible technology that will be beneficial to society. It only highlights how much farther we still have to go.

*I would like to thank Fiona Mulroe for the inspiration to take this approach to the disengagement report

In January of this year, the United States Department of Transportation and the National Science & Technology Council released Automated Vehicles 4.0: Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicles Technologies (“AV 4.0”). The report is intended to act as a set of unifying principles across 38 federal departments, agencies, commissions, and Executive offices. It offers guidance and an overarching vision to state and local government agencies, as well as technical experts and industry participants. AV 4.0 builds on AV 3.0, which was released in 2018, and AV 2.0, which was released in 2017.

Consistent across the three iterations of Automated Vehicle reports produced under the Trump administration has been the wholly restrained voluntary/guidance approach, without mandates or true regulation laid down. This “light touch” approach recognizes that much of the regulatory action is taking place at the state level, and voluntarily by industry and other AV stakeholders. The lack of federal enforceability removes the hope of any near-term consensus or consistency to the coordination of states and industry approach to automated vehicles.

As in AV 3.0, AV 4.0 begins with a discussion of guidelines and broad overarching principles that the federal government will recognize when developing AV technology. The three Principles and associated sub-areas are:

  1. Protect Users and Communities
    • (a) Prioritize Safety
    • (b) Emphasize Security and Cyber Security
    • (c) Ensure Privacy and Data Security
    • (d) Enhance Mobility and Accessibility
  2. Promote Efficient Markets
    • (a) Remain Technology Neutral
    • (b) Protect American Innovation and Creativity
    • (c) Modernize Regulations
  3. Facilitate Coordinated Efforts
    • (a) Promote Consistent Standards and Practices
    • (b) Ensure a Consistent Federal Approach
    • (c) Improve Transportation System-Level Effects

While these broader principles are new to AV 3.0, the sub-areas within each principle are a mixture of old principles from AV 3.0, combined with some new government focuses. (The new components are italicized  in the above list) These new components center mainly around the Trump administration’s desire to “Buy American, Hire American,” and bring in new focuses for security, cybersecurity, and privacy. The report does indicate that DOT will establish manufacturing, performance, and operational standards to increase safety in AV testing and integration. Still, the parameters of these standards remain unclear.

However, the majority of the report is devoted to Section III: U.S. Government Activities and Opportunities for Collaboration. The  driving purpose of the report is to provide general descriptions of the vast array of government agencies that are responsible (or will be responsible) for some level of AV-related policies or subjects. The report detail both the big and small ways that federal agencies, departments, offices, etc. will play a role in the development and commercialization of AVs. However, there is no real substantive or specific policy discussion.

The survey of government agency activity (and an appendix with links to government websites and contacts for agencies responsible for AV-related policies) are the real substance added. There is no description or plan of how interagency cooperation will occur, nor is there an overarching plan for the government’s approach to implementation. AV 4.0 is useful as a catalog for the various ways the federal government could interact with AV-policy but gives no further direction to how industry and states should regulate AVs. The DOT continues to kick the can down the road but has thankfully provided a clearinghouse of information on which agencies may be responsible for what activities, and the current efforts underway at the federal level, particularly on research and funding.

This restrained approach could be a good thing, given the rapid pace at which the AV industry is developing. However, there is a great deal more work that needs to be done at the federal level before any of the 10 core principles articulated can be realized. The Department of Transportation has requested public comment on AV 4.0.

Cars are getting smarter and safer. And yet this new breed of automobile remains inaccessible to large parts of the consumer base due to high costs. Some of these costs are a natural result of technological advancements in the automobile industry. Others however may be a product of inefficient market dynamics among car manufacturers, insurers and technology companies – which ultimately contribute to a reduced state of safety on our roads.

Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that equip cars with services like autonomous braking systems, parking assistance, and blind spot detection are growing at an exponential rate. The global ADAS market size was estimated to be around $14.15 billion in 2016. Since then, it has witnessed a high rate of growth and is expected to reach $67 billion by 2025. Not only is this good news for ADAS developers, it can also significantly increase road safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that the deployment of automatic emergency braking in most cars on the road, for instance, can prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries by 2025.

The biggest roadblock to the easy adoption of ADAS-equipped cars remains its prohibitive cost. Lower rates of adoption not only reduce the overall safety of cars on the road, but also disproportionately affect poorer people. Unsurprisingly, a study in Maryland found that individuals at the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum have greater access to vehicle safety features leaving those at the lower end at higher risk.

A significant contributing factor to the continued high cost of automated vehicles is the high rate of car insurance. This seems rather counter intuitive. The technological evolution of safety systems reduces the risk of car crashes and other incidents. Consequently, this was expected to cause a decline in insurance premiums. And yet, costs remain high. Insurance companies have resisted the demands for lowering the cost of premiums claiming that the data about ADAS systems and their efficacy in reducing risk is just not conclusive. Moreover, the industry claims, that even if ADAS systems can cause a reduction in the number of vehicular incidents, each incident involving an automated car costs more because of the sophisticated and often delicate hardware such as sensors and cameras installed in these cars. As the executive vice president of Hanover Insurance Group puts it, “There’s no such thing as a $300 bumper anymore. It’s closer to $1,500 in repair costs nowadays.”

There is no doubt that these are legitimate concerns. An industry whose entire business model involves pricing risk can hardly be blamed for seeking more accurate data for quantifying said risk. Unfortunately, none of the actors involved in the automated vehicle industry are particularly forthcoming with their data. At a relatively nascent stage, the AV industry is still highly competitive with large parts of operations shrouded in secrecy. Car manufacturers that operate fleets of automated vehicles and no doubt gather substantial data around crash reports are loathe to share it with insurers out of fears of giving away proprietary information and losing their competitive edge. The consequence of this lack of open exchange is that AVs continue to remain expensive and perhaps improperly priced from a risk standpoint.

There are some new attempts to work around this problem. Swiss Re, for example, is developing a global ADAS risk score that encourages car manufacturers to share data with them that they in turn would use to recommend discounts to insurers. Continental AG has similarly developed a Data Monetization Platform that seemingly allows fleet operators to sell data in a secure and transparent manner to city authorities, insurers and other interested parties. These are early days so whether these initiatives will be able to overcome the insecurities around trade secrets and proprietary data remains to be seen.

It is however clear that along with the evolution of cars and technologies the insurance industry too will need to change. As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, automated vehicles will fundamentally alter the private car insurance market by shifting car ownership from an individual-centric model to a fleet-centric one, at least in the short to medium term. This shift itself could cost auto insurers nearly $25 billion (or 1/8th of the global market) in revenue from premiums. It is imperative therefore that the insurance industry devise new innovative approaches to price the risk associated with AVs. Hopefully they can do this without further driving up costs and while making safer technologies accessible to those that need it the most.

Arrival’s Electric Delivery Vans

The delivery industry is evolving in order to keep up with the rise of home delivery. Arrival, a startup company in the process of building electric delivery vans, plans to add new vehicles to the roads in the next few years. The company plans to offer vehicles with different battery capacities, but the current model maxes out at 200 miles of range. Arrival’s vehicles are expected to carry 500 cubic feet of packages and up to two tons. In order to be competitive with the direction towards automation, Arrival is designing its vehicles to accommodate autonomous systems which will allow for a smooth transition once autonomous driving is more widely used. In the meantime, the vehicle’s Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS) will increase safety and operating efficiencies.

Arrival has recently captured the interest of big corporations. Hyundai and Kia announced that they are investing around $110 million in Arrival and will jointly develop vehicles with them. UPS has been a partner of Arrival since 2016 and has both invested and ordered 10,000 of Arrival’s electric delivery vans. UPS was motivated to purchase these vehicles because of its efforts to cut emissions and delivery costs, both of which Arrival contends its vehicles will do. UPS plans to begin using some of these vehicles later this year.

The Arrival vans along with UPS’s Waymo project “will help us continue to push the envelope on technology and new delivery models that can complement the way our drivers work,” said Juan Perez, chief information and engineering officer at UPS.

Arrival sets itself apart from other electric delivery vehicle companies in a few ways. One is its plan to establish “microfactories” that take up 10,000 square meters and make around 10,000 vehicles a year for nearby customers. The use of microfactories instead of a large plant will significantly cut the costs of manufacturing. Another unique aspect of Arrival is its modular approach to production in which the vehicle’s weight, type, size, and shape can be customized according to the purchaser’s preference.

The environmental aspect of using electric vehicles over gas or diesel vehicles is a major component that will contribute to Arrival’s current and expected success. A report by the World Economic Forum revealed that deliveries will increase carbon emissions by 30% by 2030 unless there is effective intervention. One of the intervention options that will have the greatest impact on reducing CO2 emissions is switching to battery electric vehicles. According to the report, battery electric vehicles can reduce CO2 emissions by 16%. UPS currently has about 123,000 delivery vehicles in its fleet. If all goes well with the electrical vehicles it purchased then the vehicles currently in UPS’s use might be phased out which is the sort of intervention our environment needs.

“As mega-trends like population growth, urban migration, and e-commerce continue to accelerate, we recognize the need to work with partners around the world to solve both road congestion and pollution challenges for our customers and the communities we serve. Electric vehicles form a cornerstone to our sustainable urban delivery strategies. Taking an active investment role in Arrival enables UPS to collaborate on the design and production of the world’s most advanced electric delivery vehicles.”

Juan Perez of UPS