Smart-driving, self-driving cars are all the rage these days. Tech companies of all stripes, from automakers to search engines, have, for now at least, skipped past the jetpacks and hoverboards and turned their attention to how to make cars drive themselves.
As the logic goes, self-driving cars are ultimately intended to be safer than letting volatile humans take the wheel. The logic isn’t that ridiculous because clearly we can’t be trusted with automobiles. Not if you believe the statistics by agencies like the Association for Safe International Road Travel, which states that roughly 1.3 million people die in road accidents worldwide every year. About 37,000 of those fatalities ‒‒ 7,000 more than the population of Princeton ‒‒ are Americans. And that’s just deaths. Injuries from vehicle crashes range in the tens of millions annually.
So there’s been a concentrated effort to take driving out of our hands and turn it over to machines that would be able to read the road signs, gauge weather conditions, recognize objects in the way, map out efficient routes to various destinations, and never ever be distracted by the ring of a cell phone or the appearance of a text message on the dashboard.
Princeton University is among those institutions looking to solve the problems in the center of this Venn diagram about how to make smart-driving cars — the intersection of technology, psychology, community impact, and, surprise, insurance.
On Wednesday and Thursday, May 17 and 18, Princeton will host dozens of speakers and presenters looking into the beyond-the-hype realities of smart-driving cars at the 2017 SmartDriving Car Summit. The conference seeks to hear from the buyers, sellers, and facilitators of smart-driving cars, trucks, and buses who will discuss the commercialization and deployment necessities of the technology.
The conference’s organizer, who hopes it will become an annual event, is Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton who has been studying and advocating for autonomous vehicles since the 1970s. Kornhauser believes firmly that the forces needed to make “safe driving” cars ubiquitous are coming together so quickly that it’s not unrealistic to think of a future vision that is “total utopia,” what he calls “a Garden of Eden without the apple.”
Just two years ago in an interview with U.S. 1 (May 27, 2015), Kornhauser noted that “the interesting piece is that in the past, we thought we needed to have a separate highway for these things. The idea of having these operating in a mixed environment with humans was at first thought to be totally crazy, but in the last 10 years, since Google has jumped on board, everybody says this is the way to go.”
Since then the self-driving car concept has picked up speed. “Things are really moving quickly,” says Kornhauser. Other speakers at the May 17 and 18 summit include Emily Carter, dean of the Princeton University School of Engineering, plus co-chairs from the department; Christine O’Brien, president of the Insurance Council of New Jersey; and Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
On May 17 the program will feature sessions on global views with speakers Adam Jonas, head of global auto research at Morgan Stanley (via video); Chunka Mui, futurist and innovation advisor at BrightSight Group; John Cichowski of NJ News; Paul Brubaker, president and CEO of ATI21; Adriano Alessandrini, a professor at the University of Rome; and Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at nVIDIA. Shapiro will also speak on the implications driverless cars will have for communities, along with Bern Grush, founder of Grush Niles Strategic.
Speaking on safety and insurance will be Keith Kerman, chief fleet officer for New York City administrative services; Kim Hazelbaker, senior advisor at the Highway Loss Data Institute; Jerome Lutin, retired NJ Transit executive; Richard Badolato, acting commissioner of insurance for New Jersey; Ray Martinez, New Jersey Motor Vehicle commissioner; and Christine Kogut, principal and consulting actuary at Milliman.
Speaking on the implications for dealerships will be Sheldon Sandler, CEO of Bel Air Partners; Nathaniel Beuse, associate administrator for the National Transportation Safety Administration; and Jeff Drazan, managing partner at Bertram Capital.
Speaking on “Mobility for All” will be Matt Lesh, chief commercial officer at Meridian Autonomous; Gilbert Gagnaire, co-founder of Easy Mile; Michel Parent, co-founder of AutoKAB; Dick Alexander, president of TransDev; John Eggert, director of automotive at Velodyne LiDAR; and Wessel van der Pol of 2getThere.
On May 18 the program runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. There are scheduled talks on near-term opportunities for corporations and communities and near-term technology opportunities. Scheduled presenters include Stanley Young, research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Ann Gergen, executive director of AGRiP; and Kaan Ozbay, who will speak on artificial intelligence and learning.
Cost to attend the summit is $350. Visit summit.smartdrivingcar.com.
Born in France and raised in Pittsburgh, Kornhauser majored in aerospace engineering at Penn State, graduating in 1965, and earned his doctorate at Princeton, where he has remained. In addition to his academic endeavors, he co-founded ALK Technologies, an early developer of GPS mapping technology that is based on Harrison Street. ALK Technologies was bought by Trimble, based in Sunnyvale, California, in 2013 and is now a division of its parent company.
Kornhauser will also speak on the future of personal transportation at the Princeton Future meeting Saturday, May 20, at 9 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library.
As for the technology of smart-driving cars, some heavyweights already have major skin in the game. Tesla was one of the first to broach the real possibility of the technology with its Smartcar program (not to be confused with the tiny Smart Car made by Daimler). Tesla’s Smartcar idea seeks to use the Internet to figure out how to manage your drive routine. Ideally, the plan is for the car to learn what times you drive, what internal temperatures you like, and so on, then juice itself up for your daily commute while you sleep.
The company has also been developing Autopilot, which allows a sensor-and-camera-laden car with 360-degree vision to do the driving for you.
Beyond Tesla, there are self-driving car projects in the works at Google (called Waymo, for “a new way forward in mobility,” with “a mission to make it safe and easy for people and things to move around”). Earlier this month Apple and Amazon also announced they are in the self-driving car game. Amazon is, apparently, looking for an auto-fleet for delivery; Apple, it seems, doesn’t want to get left behind.
The two-day Princeton conference will focus on three subject areas:
Safe driving cars, trucks, and buses. Tesla is the pioneer in the field, but it’s also the first company to deal with a death of someone riding in a car meant to drive itself safely. Last July a motorist in a self-driving Tesla in Florida died after his car struck a tractor-trailer.
While the crash was a public relations blow to Tesla and caused a short-term blip in the steady climb of its stock price, industry analysts today point to safety as one of the car’s biggest selling points. The new Model 3, expected to be on the market by next year and be priced at in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, could be as much as 10 times safer than the average car on the road today, according to an account posted at Barron’s website. An analyst was quoted as saying, “look for safety to be the aha moment for this car.”
One of the principal causes of accidents today is distracted driving, and Kornhauser believes it’s virtually impossible to change human behavior. But, he says, technology in vehicles will put the brakes on when there is something ahead, or prevent the car from drifting out of its lane. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that there are 40 percent fewer crashes involving Teslas with autopilot compared to Teslas without autopilot. “That doesn’t even address the reduced severity of the accidents that do happen,” he says.
A safe-driving car will not prevent all accidents. “A moose can still jump out in front of you, a boulder can fall onto the road, another driver can cut you off,” he says. “But 90 percent of accidents have some human error involved.” With a safe driving car “I’m not going to end up in a position where it’s my fault,” he says.
Insurance issues. Kornhauser believes that safe-driving systems will make some drivers much safer than they are presently. “Anyone with a DWI will become a much safer driver” operating one of these cars. In fact, he says, the price of the safe driving technology is already low enough that insurance companies could underwrite the cost of the system when a customer buys a new car, and then recoup the investment thanks to the few claims that would be generated by the driver.
“It’s a fundamental win-win,” he says. “I can’t understand why the gecko or Flo [referring to the characters in the GEICO and Progressive Insurance commercials] haven’t caught on to this.”
Driverless mobility and its impact on communities. Kornhauser sees some possible adverse affects. “With self driving cars there may be less apprehension about driving, and we’ll all probably choose to drive more,” he says. “There could be implications in terms of energy use.”
But that would offset by increased personal mobility. Kornhauser talks about the social costs of affordable housing being developed in remote sites where the residents have a hard time getting to a grocery store. Driverless vehicles could be economically much more viable than a bus or even Uber or Lyft-style system where most of the cost is for the human labor.
When fully developed, Kornhauser believes, such a system could work the way the elevator system works at the office. And if you call a car and are spooked out by the person already in it, you can just not get in, and call for another one. But Kornhauser doesn’t see passengers in cars interacting much more than they do in an actual elevator. “When you get in the car what are you going to do?” he asks. “Start texting and looking at your cell phone.” But at least you won’t be threatening other motorists and yourself while you do it.
Beyond all the technology and hype remains the general psychology behind cars that drive themselves, and possibly quite rapidly. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) found that 46 percent of drivers preferred to retain full control of a vehicle, and only about 16 percent said they would want to ride in a fully autonomous car.
Who could blame them? Given the dangers involved in a miscalculation, the technology that would allow thousand-pound missiles to zip around at potentially high speeds is going to need to be pretty spot on before any kind of auto-automobile rolls off the lots of dealerships anywhere.
Just keep in mind, the kinds of people working on the myriad problems of self-driving, wireless-connected cars are the same ones who have made wireless networks, Windows 8, and the Samsung 7. And we all know, as miraculous as those technologies are, they were far from spot-on when we first met them. And none of those were moving at 100 mph down your street.