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Joann Muller (L) and Seleta Reynolds (R). Photo: Axios

Pedestrian safety sits at the forefront of planning for the adoption of autonomous vehicles in Los Angeles, the city's general manager of the Transportation Department, Seleta Reynolds, said on Tuesday during a virtual Axios event.

Catch up quick: Reynolds said that the lesson learned from working with auto manufacturers, software creators and USDOT for four to five years is "that we probably wouldn't be able to rely on [autonomous vehicles] to solve pedestrian safety, and instead, we would need to take those kinds of things back into our own hands."

What she's saying: Last year, an AAA report found that pedestrian detection systems and automatic braking systems on autonomous vehicles "did a really poor job of detecting adult pedestrians," Reynolds said. "And they failed almost completely in avoiding crashes with child pedestrians."

What's next: L.A. is working on a "proactive pedestrian detection" system around Metro Red Line subway stations, "where we have high numbers of people walking, and also high numbers of people getting injured and killed," Reynolds said.

  • Reynolds sees layering automation into buses as an opportunity to improve safety while freeing bus drivers to be "trained for more community functions," like assisting riders with disabilities, de-escalating conflicts and addressing medical emergencies.
  • "I don't know of very many companies that are actually focused on" using autonomy to solve "real problems" while retaining middle-class jobs, Reynolds said.

Watch the event.

Go deeper

Updated Aug 11, 2020 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on the future of autonomous vehicles

On Tuesday August 11, Axios Navigate author Joann Muller hosted a conversation on the future of autonomous vehicles and the latest innovations in mobility, featuring Los Angeles Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds, American University professional lecturer Selika Josiah Talbott and Mothers Against Drunk Driving National President Helen Witty.

From government regulation and safety to equitable access, the guests unpacked the impact of having autonomous vehicles on city streets.

  • Selika Josiah Talbott on making access to autonomous vehicles equitable: "It's up to the government to step in...we need to make sure that we invest in our communities, whether urban or rural, to make sure this isn't just a toy for the rich, but a way to create equity."
  • Helen Witty on the potential for eliminating drunk driving through driverless cars: We have technology now to save lives today...When we remove driver behavior from cars, that's going to eliminate drunk driving. We love the idea of autonomous vehicles as long as they're deployed safely. "
  • Seleta Reynolds on how automated buses can free up bus drivers to perform community functions like helping passengers with disabilities and de-escalating conflicts: "Those are the kinds of things that I think autonomy can be a pathway to, to actually getting at real problems and retain those really great middle-class jobs that exist for people who are helping folks get around town and navigate our cities."

Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with
Motional President & CEO Karl Iagnemma who discussed how COVID-19 has affected the automotive industry's approach to developing autonomous vehicles.

  • "Seventy percent of people told us that risk of infection had a significant influence on their transportation decisions...Prior to the pandemic, safety was only about avoiding crashes, and now we understand it's not just about avoiding crashes it's also about minimizing the risk of infection."

Thank you Motional for sponsoring this event.

Expert: Policy for autonomous vehicle industry is "like the Wild West"

Joann Muller (R) and Selika Josiah Talbott (L). Photo: Axios screenshot

A lack of federal policy has hampered the autonomous car industry's transparency with communities where the vehicles are tested, American University professor Selika Josiah Talbott said during a virtual Axios event on Tuesday.

What she's saying: "We need guidelines. Right now, it's like the Wild West. We need bumpers in place so we don't have rogue actions testing vehicles on the roadway and possibly causing harm to the general public," Talbott said.

Coronavirus has inflamed global inequality

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

History will likely remember the pandemic as the "first time since records began that inequality rose in virtually every country on earth at the same time." That's the verdict from Oxfam's inequality report covering the year 2020 — a terrible year that hit the poorest, hardest across the planet.

Why it matters: The world's poorest were already in a race against time, facing down an existential risk in the form of global climate change. The coronavirus pandemic could set global poverty reduction back as much as a full decade, according to the World Bank.