Sep 4, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Expert Voices contributor Jim Barbaresso weighs in on how to fund highway repairs in the age of electric vehicles.

Smart Brevity count: 1,334 words, ~ 5 minutes.

1 big thing: AVs could help speed evacuations

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

About 1.5 million Floridians have moved inland to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. Such evacuations can be perilous — but in the future, networks of automated vehicles could help shuttle people out of harm's way more efficiently, Axios' Kim Hart and I write.

Yes, but: Two colliding trends will likely make evacuations in this storm-prone population center trickier in the interim.

  1. People are moving to south Florida in huge numbers, which will put far more people at risk.
  2. Battery-powered AVs and the infrastructure to support them are still a long way off.

Why it matters: That means Floridians — who drive alone more than the rest of the nation — could have to choose between toughing it out on choked evacuation routes or staying put and riding out future storms.

Context: Evacuation orders are supposed to keep people safe, but sometimes create their own disasters.

  • Before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, 2.5 million Houston residents tried to flee, only to be trapped by gridlock for up to 20 hours, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 100 people died in the exodus, including 24 nursing home evacuees whose bus caught fire.
  • In Florida, 7 million people tried to escape Hurricane Irma as it marched the length of the state in 2017, leading to traffic jams and related problems.

AVs might help make evacuations more efficient, Florida's former emergency management chief Bryan Koon, now a VP at disaster consulting firm IEM, wrote in a 2018 blog post.

  • Platoons of connected AVs could shuttle groups of people at a time to a safe destination, reducing the number of cars on the road.
  • By communicating with other cars, they could travel faster and closer together. This could maximize traffic flows and reduce traffic-jamming fender benders.
  • Smart cars could also identify less congested routes and even direct people to available shelters or hotels.
  • "If you take the need for drivers out of the equation, you can move 30% more people in the same space, in theory," agrees Louisiana State University professor Brian Wolshon, who has worked with local governments on evacuation planning.

But, but, but: The slow transition from personal car ownership to shared mobility, and from gasoline engines to electric cars, could actually make mass evacuations more difficult over the next couple of decades, Koon tells Axios.

  • As EVs proliferate, for example, the number of gas stations will fall and the number of charging stations will rise. But during the changeover "there could be a chance that we don't have enough of either" to handle a large-scale evacuation, he says.
  • As people give up their cars in favor of ride-hailing, it's also possible there won't be enough vehicles to accommodate everyone who needs to flee in an emergency, he adds.
  • "We might no longer be able to say, 'Just get in your car and drive away.'"

What to watch: Florida's population is projected to increase by 6 million people, to 26 million by 2030 with much of the growth in vulnerable coastal regions.

  • Restrictions on growth in the Florida Keys are tied to the county's ability to quickly evacuate people in a hurricane. Other regions could soon face similar limitations, Koon warns.
  • Government leaders need to factor in changing transportation trends, as well as the growing population, when crafting their emergency management plans.

Go deeper: The latest on Dorian

2. AV blind spot: stopped vehicles

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Semi-automated vehicles seem to have a common problem when traveling at highway speeds — they may not detect stationary objects in the middle of the road.

Why it matters: Drivers who rely too much on the car's automated driving features might not have enough time to react when the vehicle they are following veers out of their lane to avoid an obstacle — even something large like a disabled vehicle.

Driving the news: A government report says the driver of a Tesla that slammed into a firetruck near Los Angeles last year was using the car’s Autopilot system when a vehicle ahead suddenly changed lanes and he didn’t have time to react, AP reports.

  • It's the latest in a series of accidents involving Teslas that failed to react to stopped vehicles.
  • Other vehicles equipped with adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, including Volvos, have similar shortcomings, Wired writes.

Yes, but: Per Wired, that's not a mistake. The radar used in assisted driving systems is programmed to ignore stationary objects so it can focus on the speed of moving objects.

  • Hence, when the moving object changes lanes, it doesn't see the static object parked in the middle of the lane. Engineers say they make this tradeoff to avoid false positives.
  • More sensors, including lidar, could help alleviate this problem. But until costs come down, lidar won't be used much in assisted-driving systems.

Of note: Tesla, Volvo and others warn that this could happen, adding that the driver is always responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle.

My thought bubble: It can't be said enough — there are no self-driving cars. Drivers must pay attention at all times, even when using assisted-driving technology.

3. A mileage-based tax could rescue the Highway Trust Fund

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Highway Trust Fund, which finances key items like road repairs and construction, is paid for by the federal fuel tax — but will need a new funding model as EVs proliferate, Jim Barbaresso writes for Axios Expert Voices.

What's happening: EV driving ranges are getting longer, charging times are getting shorter, and demand for zero-emissions vehicles is growing. Major automakers plan to launch as many as 100 new EV models by 2023 to meet growing customer demand.

Why it matters: For years, the Highway Trust Fund has barely avoided bankruptcy, saved by marginal increases in vehicle miles driven and by cash infusions.

  • This system will be unsustainable if EVs continue to grow in popularity
  • A handful of potential solutions to the waning funding problem is under consideration.

The most workable solution has been mileage-based. A car owner would pay a fee based on the number of miles their vehicle travels, and gas-powered vehicles could get a rebate to offset fuel taxes.

  • How it works: Oregon has pioneered this promising concept, and several other states have launched their own pilots.
  • But, but, but: While a mileage-based solution has surpassed alternatives in popularity, even proponents have voiced concern about government tracking their every move to calculate the user fee.
  • Plus, the privacy and data security of car owners must be protected.

What to watch: The pending transportation funding authorization package in Congress includes provisions for pilots of mileage-based fee systems.

Read more

Barbaresso is SVP of intelligent transportation systems at HNTB, an infrastructure advisory firm.

4. Driving the conversation

Labor talks: GM selected by UAW as target automaker (Michael Martinez — Automotive News)

  • The big picture: Contract terms to be hammered out with GM will likely set the pattern for subsequent deals with Ford and Fiat Chrysler. The GM talks promise to be the most difficult, however, because of issues around plant closings and temporary workers. The current labor deal expires Sept. 14.

Micromobility: As scooters go mainstream, infrastructure falls behind (Jason Plautz — Smart Cities Dive)

  • Why it matters: The proliferation of scooters has raised questions about where they are safe to ride — on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or in the street — and who will pay for the infrastructure to support them.

Flight path: EHang's flying taxis still face safety concerns and regulatory hurdles (South China Morning Post)

  • My thought bubble: The Chinese startup, which made a splash at CES in 2016 and has flown more than 2,000 demo flights since then, seems closer than U.S.-based companies to launching flying passenger drones. That's partly because the FAA is more cautious than Chinese regulators.
  • EHang says it has a deal to launch pilot service in Guangzhou in the near future, per SCMP. Stay tuned.
5. 1 golf thing

Even a 4-year-old can sink a putt using Nissan's prototype golf ball. Image: Nissan

For all those struggling golfers out there, take heart: Nissan has an autonomous golf ball that will let you sink that 60-foot putt every time, according to Golf.com.

How it works: Like Nissan's ProPilot 2.0 driver-assist system that will debut next month in the new Skyline, the ProPilot ball “supports golfers by following a predefined route to its goal.”

  • A drone-mounted camera detects the position of the ball and cup.
  • When the ball is hit, an internal monitoring system plans a route to the hole and adjusts its trajectory.
  • A tiny electric motor, along with wireless transmitters and other sensors, helps the ProPilot golf ball find the hole, Nissan says. 

Yes, but: Nissan has no more intention of selling autonomous golf balls than it does a self-parking chair or slippers that put themselves away autonomously (2 innovations previously demonstrated).

Go deeper: Nissan is the leader in self-driving technology — for golf balls (Forbes)

Joann Muller