The road ahead: Driverless vehicles and the future of smart mobility

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There are big changes coming to your commute. It is so dramatic some experts are comparing it to putting horses out to pasture - in favor of the automobile. Driverless vehicles will not only change what people do in a car, but it will change city landscapes.

Semi-self-driving cars are already on the road. For example, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 comes with a cruise option that allows the car to steer itself. It automatically speeds up or slows down with the flow of traffic and will hit the brakes if it senses an impending collision.

“The feeling of letting the car have control, it’s counterintuitive from everything we’ve ever been taught. But it’s also kind of fun at the same time,” said Anthony Peluf from Key Cadillac.

For now, the system only works on main freeways and requires the driver to keep an eye on the road.

A camera mounted on the steering column can tell if the driver is not paying attention.

“If you do fall asleep or have a medical emergency, the system will actually disengage; it will slow down the vehicle to a full stop, put on flashers and call emergency medical services,” Peluf said.

A number of carmakers are rolling out models with similar cruise control capabilities.


Researchers at the University of Minnesota want to know how people are going to interact with driverless automobiles. They have one of the most advanced simulators in the country to test how automation influences a driver’s behavior.

“Alright. The car’s driving itself now. You can see the steering wheel is taking over,” said Nicole Morris, Director of the HumanFirst lab as she started a demonstration.

For someone in the driver’s seat, it is very realistic; he can even feel the bumps in the road.

As a driver sits back to relax and enjoy the scenery, he can lose touch with what the car is doing. And that, as Fox 9’s Jeff Baillon discovered, can be a problem when something unexpected happens.

For instance, when the simulated ride went off the road.

“We were really engaged in our conversation and didn’t know what to do,” Morris said.

This transition period from using cars with human drivers to ones that are basically on auto pilot is going to be tricky. But, the car industry is investing heavily in the switch.

Tom Fisher is Director of the U of M’s design center.

“I think, conservatively, it could happen in a 15 to 20 year time horizon, but it could happen sooner,” he predicted.

The University recently got a couple of federal grants to study how the coming of autonomous vehicles is going to transform commutes and communities.

“Parking ramps 20 years from now will need to be turned into offices or light industry or apartments because we won’t be storing cars in them,” he said.


According to Fisher, the days of everyone owning his or her own car are numbered.

The big automakers are planning to sell us "mobility services" instead of a new set of wheels every few years. Think of something like Uber or Lyft only the vehicle that picks someone up would be without a driver. Automakers will become the mobility services.

“As one of the car manufacturers told me is that they think they can make somewhere between seven and eight times the profit,” said Fisher.


Fisher believes a future with autonomous vehicles roaming neighborhoods waiting to be summoned will dramatically change the landscape of our cities.

Currently, about 30 percent of the land in most metro areas is used for parking lots and garages. That land could be developed into housing or turned into green space if fewer people own cars.

Researchers believe inner city neighborhoods will look much different as automated vehicles eventually take over for the personal car.

Grad students who are on a career path to be the city planners of tomorrow are trying to figure out how communities are going to have to redesign themselves to tackle the transition to self-driving vehicles.


“One thing that pretty much everyone can agree on is there is a tremendous opportunity to improve safety,” said Ginny Crowson from the Center for Transportation Studies.

The expectation is that automated cars will have far fewer crashes because they will all be communicating with each other and know each other’s precise movements.

Today's greatest risk factor human error will be removed from behind the wheel.

“Almost all of the accidents with autonomous vehicles have been because cars with drivers drive into them. The vehicles don’t cause the accidents its drivers that are still causing accidents,” said Fisher.

There still are many technical challenges to overcome before driverless cars are the norm especially in Minnesota because of the weather.

Engineers at another U of M lab, are testing a sensor that’s being used to help guide automated car prototypes. It makes out shapes of people and other objects and then measures how far away they are so the vehicle is aware of obstacles. The great thing about this technology is it can work in total darkness.

But, what needs more research is how well it’ll perform in the extremes of a Minnesota winter, as both snow and ice can interfere with the signal.

“We’re probably going to be the last place because of the weather issues,” said Max Donath from the U of M’s Intelligent Transportation System Institute.

Road testing of driverless vehicles is happening now in more climate friendly places like Arizona and Nevada. That's where Donath expects to see them first put to regular use by trucking companies as a way to deal with a shortage of drivers.