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State House hearing on self-driving cars talks ‘Brain Off,’ future road planning

  • Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s self-driving program, speaks about their driverless car in San Francisco in December 2016. AP file



Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 03, 2017

There are many things that need to be worked out before automated cars will be common in New Hampshire, legislators were told Wednesday – including improving digital maps of backcountry roads, teaching computers what a seagull is, and coping with the dreaded problem of “Brain Off.”

“That’s what researchers call it. It’s a doze-y state, where you have the slowest reaction time,” said Nicole Barranco, director of state government relations for the Volkswagen Group of America, concerning a semi-joking term about drivers “turning off their brains” while their car does the driving.

This situation makes it hard for people to react quickly if they suddenly need to take the wheel, and it explains why Volkswagen is studying the complicated transition between autonomous and human-driven systems in extreme detail, Barranco said: “We’ve even looked at how long it takes you to put down a hot drink vs. a cold drink.”

This obscure-sounding issue came up Wednesday morning during a work session held by the House Committee on Transportation, which is gathering information as the state decides what, if anything, it should do to pave the way for self-driving cars.

“The purpose of this (hearing) is to gather information to set reasonable parameters to allow testing, not to say ‘Have at it, buy ’em and drive ’em,’ ” said Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charleston, the committee chairman. A bill establishing “equipment requirements and operating restrictions for autonomous vehicles” was retained in the committee this legislative term.

Wayne Weikel, director of state affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group, told the committee that completely autonomous cars – where you get in and pay no attention until you arrive at your destination anywhere else – are still “many years” in the future.

He said that while the many technologies used to help keep track of their surroundings – such as radar, LIDAR, infrared detectors and visible-light cameras – were well-established, the software and controls to turn these signals into a dependable independent vehicle are still being developed.

As an example of potential complications, he pointed to NuTonomy, a firm doing testing of self-driving cars in Boston. Its cars have sometimes been confused by seagulls in roads, which register very differently with the software depending on whether it encounters a single bird or a flock clustered around a piece of food.

But the technology is developing fast. Limited versions of self-driving cars are already here in the shape of vehicles that can control both speed and direction in certain limited situations, such as highway cruising.

The next step – what the Society of Automobile Engineers calls Level 3 or “conditional autonomy,” where cars control steering and acceleration in most situations but expect the human driver to take over occasionally, such as while merging – is arriving soon. (Complete autonomy is called Level 5 in SAE parlance.)

Truly self-driving vehicles seem most likely to show up first in company fleets, where usage is carefully controlled, or as “geo-limited” technologies that can only travel inside set areas such as a college campus, military base or hospital complex. It’s also possible that self-driving buses or heavy-duty trucks may be common before self-driving cars, he said.

Autonomous vehicles seem to be legal in New Hampshire, Volkwagen’s Barranco said, as they are in all states unless laws target them deliberately – Massachusetts is proposing certain restrictions – or accidentally, as in the case of New York state, which for decades has required drivers to keep one hand on the steering wheel.

But the legal status in New Hampshire isn’t certain because so many laws deal with driving that it’s hard to know whether driverless cars conflict with any of them.

“In our view, states should focus initially on removing impediments to testing and deployment,” Weikel said, later adding, “Read every single law you have on the books and think about how does that law, that section, that paragraph, that concept apply if it’s not a human driver? ... I’m sure you have lots of statements that begin ‘the driver shall’ – what does that mean if it’s not a human driver?”

That job has been assigned to the Division of Motor Vehicles, which was named the lead state agency for the topic.

Weikel also suggested that future repairs and upgrades to roads, signals and signs keep the technology in mind. Self-driving cars, which use a variety of sensors to know what’s going on around them, benefit from extremely clear highway and road markers. He noted one complication: Stoplights hung from cables rather than mounted on poles can swing in the wind and confuse self-driving vehicle software, which assumes the lights are always stationary.

“We don’t suggest that you spend more ... but that you do it with an eye toward what is coming,” he said.

The association also has suggested making it harder for independent operators to test self-driving technology, such as requiring the posting of a multimillion-dollar bond in order to avoid what Weikel called a poorly designed or poorly built system that would cause an accident and derail the budding industry.

Committee members had a few questions, which ranged from technical discussions of “cascading errors” in sensors to privacy concerns about driving data to questions from Jessica Ayala, D-Nashua, about how to train drivers to deal with such a major change in habits.

There will be a long “period of socialization,” Weikel said in response. Because vehicles last so long, he said, it is estimated that even if all new cars were required to be self-driving as of tomorrow, it would take 25 years before 95 percent of the cars on the road were autonomous.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)