Aug 7, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Situational awareness: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent Tesla a cease-and-desist letter over the company's misleading claim that the Model 3 had “the lowest probability of injury of all cars the safety agency has ever tested.” (Bloomberg)

Smart Brevity count: 1,323 words, 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Women are less trusting of AVs

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Women are less enthusiastic than men about the prospect of driverless cars. Until researchers understand why, it will be difficult for developers of autonomous vehicles to win their trust.

Why it matters: AVs are supposed to bring fewer traffic deaths and improved access to transportation, but only if people trust them.

  • To deliver on those promises, AV companies need to consider women's concerns about the technology, which could be exacerbated by worries about personal safety and a lack of accountability when there is no driver present.

Key stat: Overall, 71% of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles, according to AAA, but it turns out women are far less comfortable (79%) with AVs than men (62%).

  • AAA did not probe deeper to find out why trust is lower among women, nor, it seems, have any other researchers.
  • But the gender gap also popped up in a study by researchers at MIT's Age Lab, who were looking at generational differences in attitudes toward AVs.
  • 53% of women (vs. 32% of men) would prefer a "help driver" onboard an AV (regardless of age), the MIT study found.
  • Only 14.3% of women (vs. 30% of men) would be comfortable with full autonomy.

One possible reason for the trust gap between men and women is that the people designing self-driving cars are mostly male and haven't asked for female input, says Meredith Broussard, NYU professor and author of "Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World."

  • "Technochauvinists" — those who believe technology will solve everything — are often blind to social issues like gender parity and diversity, she says.
  • In fact, women are often overlooked in the data used for designing everything from medical devices to transit systems, Caroline Criado Perez writes in a new book, "Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men."
  • As I wrote recently, women face a much higher risk than men of being seriously injured or killed in a crash because safety systems are designed to protect the "average male."

Intel unearthed some gender differences in its research on driverless cars with TEAGUE, a Seattle-based design consultancy.

  • "The women in our study — and especially the moms — had very different thoughts about both the safety of an AV as well as its utility," Jack Weast, Intel senior principal engineer, said in an email.
  • Parents, for example, liked the idea of transporting their kids without a stranger behind the wheel, but they were also concerned about the lack of accountability when there is no driver.

To make women and others feel less vulnerable in a shared AV, TEAGUE offers some solutions:

  • Cameras and microphones could be mounted inside the vehicle for remote monitoring and to allow passengers to check the interior before they board.
  • Passengers could use their mobile phone or a preset "safe word" to discreetly reroute the vehicle to a police station if they feel threatened.
  • At night, AV systems could be programmed to suggest a route through a populated area rather than the shortest route.

Yes, but: All it takes is a sticky note to defeat an internal monitoring camera, notes Broussard.

The bottom line: AVs are supposed to provide safer mobility for all, so they need to be designed with everyone in mind.

2. Filling in the transportation gaps

AVs with a safety attendant will shuttle NY commuters. Photo: Optimus Ride

A flurry of recent developments shows how innovative companies are targeting real transportation problems in American cities.

In New York: Optimus Ride begins AV service today at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a 300-acre industrial park.

  • 6 automated electric shuttles will carry passengers on a closed, 1-mile loop throughout the campus that includes a new ferry stop and the Yard's Cumberland Gate at Flushing Avenue.
  • With no other public transit on the site, the shuttles are a vital cog for some New Yorkers' multimodal commute.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan: Via is launching an on-demand paratransit service in partnership with the city's public transit system, The Rapid.

  • The 6-month pilot will offer seniors and persons with disabilities on-demand transportation service, with 15 minutes or less wait time.
  • The app-based service is intended to replace the city's current paratransit system, which requires reservations up to 4 days ahead.

Also in Grand Rapids (a new hotbed of mobility innovation), May Mobility recently launched its driverless shuttles on a 3.2-mile downtown bus route in the city.

  • The 6-passenger shuttles are staffed by a safety attendant in the driver's seat and have a top speed of 25 mph.
  • The program, funded by a public-private partnership, aims to address congestion issues in the city and introduce alternative modes of transportation.
3. Self-driving cars could be more fuel-efficient

Photo: Volvo Cars

The expected benefits of self-driving cars are widely touted: They will be safer than human drivers and improve access to transportation for people with disabilities, the elderly and the poor.

One other potential benefit: They will be better for the environment (and not just because most AVs will be electric).

Driving the news: A new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on behalf of Volvo showed a 5% to 7% drop in fuel consumption for cars driving with adaptive cruise control compared with human drivers.

  • NREL studied Volvos driven by employees and their families near the company's headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • They compared the fuel economy of cars using adaptive cruise control to those without the system, which automatically adjusts to the speed of the car ahead.
  • It's the first study that uses real-world driving data to show how much more efficient cars with driver-assistance features can be, according to Green Car Reports.

Quick take: With less stop-and-go driving, cars drive at a steadier pace and thus burn less fuel.

What to watch: Future developments such as platooning and vehicle-to-vehicle communications could smooth traffic flow even further, making cars potentially even more efficient.

4. Driving the conversation

Expanding: Beyond the bus: Proterra repackages its electric transit tech to power heavy-duty commercial vehicles (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)

  • Why it matters: By selling its batteries, motors and other components for use in commercial trucks, sanitation vehicles and other zero-emission fleets, the electric bus maker is positioning itself for growth ahead of a possible IPO.

Hauling: Self-driving truck startup Kodiak Robotics begins deliveries in Texas (Kirsten Korosec — TechCrunch)

  • Driving the news: The 1-year-old company says it will begin making its first commercial deliveries in Texas using automated trucks, but there will be a safety driver behind the wheel until the company is certain its technology is better than a human.

Scheming: Getting under the hood of Amazon’s auto ambitions (Ben Klayman & Paul Lienert — Reuters)

  • My thought bubble: Trucking and logistics companies should beware — Amazon is coming for you.
  • "With these new investments and alliances up and down the auto supply chain — and by hiring key auto industry veterans and amassing a robust patent portfolio — Amazon is positioning itself to challenge corporate customers and partners ranging from United Parcel Service Inc to Uber Technologies," writes Reuters.
5. 1 distracting thing

Illustration: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Everyone wants to blame texting for distracted driving, but daydreaming and drive-thru coffee may be among the biggest culprits.

The big picture: Distracted driving isn't the same as inattentive driving, and understanding the difference could help automakers design safer cars, according to a Ward's Auto story penned by Steve Tengler, a veteran engineer turned consultant.

  • Driver distraction should refer to an unavoidable incident (such as a driver being stung by a bee).
  • Driver inattention should describe scenarios such as daydreaming, fast food and child supervision.

Details: Being “lost in thought” is the runaway No. 1 cause of distracted driving, according to a 2018 analysis by Erie Insurance, Ward's writes.

  • Police report that 61% of distracted drivers were daydreaming at the time of a fatal crash, compared with 14% of drivers who were distracted by cellphone use.
  •  A 2018 report shows 44% of coffee buyers in the past 24 hours did so at a drive-thru; “food and drink” is among the top causes of distraction-related crashes.
  • One study found interacting with kids in the backseat was 12 times more distracting than talking on cellphone.

The bottom line: “Eyes-on-the-road” driver monitoring technology could help, but as with any technology, the industry needs to prove it can save lives.

Joann Muller