Autonomous Vehicles: The Future is Now

Autonomous Vehicles: The Future is Now
Posted on 03/04/2019

By UFA Assistant Chief Mike Watson

I recently read an article about autonomous vehicles (AVs) in IAFC On Scene, a publication by the International Fire Chiefs Association. The article caught my attention for four reasons:

First, one of our work vehicles was rear-ended by an autonomous vehicle several months ago. This crash brought up several questions, both within our agency and the media, about their operation. Second, not all autonomous vehicles are created equal, meaning there are different levels of what these vehicles are designed to do. Third, agencies such as fire and police need to know what these vehicles are and are not capable of and how they operate. And lastly, the public needs to be familiar with these vehicles as well and know how to operate them in the manner they were intended.

Chris Urmson, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Innovation, states that automobile manufacturers have made many changes over the years to make cars safer. They have added seatbelts, airbags and even built cars to be stronger. The one component they have had no control over also happens to be the weakest link – the driver. Each year, approximately 33,000 deaths are the result of automobile crashes in the United States. These are some of the reasons we have seen efforts to make cars smarter, which has been happening for about the past 10 years.

Vehicles that do not require a driver are still being developed and range from vehicles that will not need brake pedals, gas pedals or steering wheels to vehicles that do not require a driver at all. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) categorizes autonomous vehicles in this way: Level 1: Cruise control; Level 2: Adaptive cruise and park assist; Level 3: Park and brake assist; Level 4: Fully autonomous; Level 5: No steering wheel, no gas or brake pedal. This is a self-driving vehicle and people are essentially riding in a POD, rather than a car. Vehicles such as these are predicted to be available in 2025-2030.

The higher the level, the more sensors and technology and hence, many fewer accidents. Self-driving vehicle accidents will probably not be eliminated, however. We should not assume that technology will fix everything, as we do not yet know how autonomous vehicles will adjust to things like construction zones or inclement weather conditions. Driver-assisted vehicles will continue to rely to some extent on the driver, so there will still be accidents with those types of vehicles. That said, predictions are that there will be fewer accidents (up to one-half) with them than vehicles that are not autonomous.

As the technology continues to progress toward Level 5 (self-driving vehicles), more and more possibilities are opening up. PODS are currently being developed that can deliver your groceries to your curb. NHTSA contemplates self-driving cars and trucks that will drive us, rather than us driving them. Parents will be able to send their kids to school in a fully autonomous POD or car. People who are blind or who have severe vision disabilities will eventually be able to have their own cars, as will people who have physical disabilities that prevent them from driving vehicles that are not fully autonomous.

It is clear that the technology is here to stay. It is up to public safety agencies and the public who operate these vehicles to know how they operate and what their capabilities are.  

Thanks, and as always, stay safe!