What is riding in an autonomous vehicle like?
“Incredible. Absolutely amazing.”
That was the verdict of Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse Wednesday morning, after he had a chance to experience the sensation during a one-mile trip around the State Capitol area in a demonstration vehicle using technology developed at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
Papenfuse admitted it initially felt strange seeing a steering wheel move on its own for the first time, but the wheel was not unattended. In the driver’s seat sat Raj Rajkumar, a CMU professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Not only did Rajkumar have the ability to switch the Cadillac SUV into manual operation when needed — as he did, briefly, when the car encountered an unexpected construction crew, Papenfuse said. At his disposal was a large, red emergency stop button, standing out like a sore thumb on the center console, just below an electronic display showing the route ahead. That display highlights crosswalks, pedestrians and other objects in the car’s path.
The vehicle’s combination of tools worked as they were supposed to when jaywalkers crossed in front of the vehicle during Papenfuse’s ride, bringing the SUV to a stop at a safe distance.
It’s the wave of the future, and that future is taking major steps forward in Pennsylvania thanks to CMU’s efforts. But before autonomous technology becomes widespread, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has convened a task force to help guide the agency as it creates policy recommendations regarding autonomous vehicle testing. The General Assembly, meanwhile, is working on legislation that would allow PennDOT to implement those policies.
As that process moves ahead, Wednesday’s demonstration was designed to give public officials — including several state lawmakers — the chance to experience the technology for themselves, as Papenfuse did.
Members of the media, including the Business Journal, also were afforded the opportunity.
How it works
CMU has been researching autonomous transportation since the 1980s.
The Cadillac SRX that is visiting Harrisburg is actually CMU’s 14th-generation vehicle. Unlike earlier versions, which carried obvious sensor equipment, the Cadillac has been modified to integrate sensors into its body.
Look closely, and you can see the discrete panels housing those sensors at various spots around the car.
Three different types of sensors are used: cameras, radar and a laser-based technology known as Lidar, as well as a GPS antenna.
The sensors gather information in real time, while algorithms processed by four computer cores in the trunk control the vehicle.
CMU’s work so far has resulted in a vehicle that can autonomously drive at highway speeds up to 70 MPH, take ramps and merge, recognize and obey traffic lights — and, crucially, avoid pedestrians and cyclists.
State Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards stressed that PennDOT sees in the technology the potential to reduce fatalities and injuries due to vehicle crashes, 95 percent of which are avoidable, she said.
In 2015, there were 1,200 fatalities involving vehicle crashes in Pennsylvania, PennDOT statistics show.
For people whose faculties have diminished due to age, Richards said the technology could help reduce the number of accidents they’re involved in while preserving and improving their mobility.
PennDOT officials also say the technology also can result in reduced energy consumption, lower emissions, improved travel times, and better mobility for people with disabilities.
Building for the future
Autonomy actually means vehicles are more connected to the grid than their ordinary counterparts.
Given a destination, the vehicle automatically generates a route that factors in speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs and lane changes, among other information.
But that process requires communicating with multiple external systems, including traffic lights.
Dan Farley is PennDOT’s chief of traffic operations, deployment and maintenance — in lay terms, the agency’s traffic signal expert. He said the technology will add “another layer to the mix” of traffic technology, but one that is expected to improve road safety.
The way to make all state roads accessible to autonomous vehicles would require equipping all of its traffic lights with radio technology like that used to demonstrate the CMU car in Harrisburg.
That won’t come quickly, however: There are 14,000 traffic lights across the state, Farley said.
That’s only one of many issues the state will have to consider.
As PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick pointed out, the technology is likely to raises new questions about the driver-licensing process. And as a July CPBJ story pointed out, even the structure of auto insurance is expected to change as the technology evolves.
Addressing such issues is one of many reasons why PennDOT in June convened its task force, which is comprised of state, federal and private-sector officials representing entities such as the Federal Highway Administration, AAA, Carnegie Mellon and Uber Technologies.
And while the technology is advancing rapidly, commercial availability is still a few years off, with automakers expecting to release it in the 2020s. As several officials said, it’s initially expected to be available as an option rather than standard, and probably at first in luxury vehicles for the most part.
What we may see earlier, according to Kirkpatrick and PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Driver and Vehicles Services Kurt Myers, is use of autonomous technology in commercial fleet vehicles. Tests on those uses are already underway in Europe and other places, and Myers said they offer the possibility for saving time and fuel through the use of “platooning,” linking multiple vehicles together under one control system, not unlike a train.
In Pennsylvania’s capital city, for the moment, there is just one autonomous vehicle, with eight traffic signals set up to accommodate it using technology provided by CMU.
The Business Journal joined PennDOT’s Richards and Myers on Wednesday for a ride in the champagne-colored Cadillac, which left the Capitol complex on a circular route via Third Street, Forster Street, 7th Street, Walnut Street and back to Third and the Capitol.
For Richards, the trip was old hat. The secretary first rode in the Cadillac three months ago during demonstrations in Pittsburgh.
With Rajkumar driving, the car slowly moved down the Capitol driveway in manual mode. As he edged out onto Third Street, a computerized female voice announced that the Cadillac had been switched into autonomous mode, and Rajkumar moved his hands gently away from the steering wheel.
He soon had to take control again, thanks to an unexpected construction truck in the right lane at the corner of Forster Street, but the vehicle was back in autonomous mode momentarily.
What the technology won’t do is speed. It is designed to keep the vehicle in the right lane in city traffic and at a safe distance from other cars. It can change lanes if needed, but obeys speed limits — something human drivers often do not do.
So as the car attempted to get in the right lane on Forster after the obstruction at the corner, another motorist coming up quickly behind began honking, and as Rajkumar took control again, passed the Cadillac on the right.
It was smooth sailing the rest of the way along Forster, 7th and Walnut.
Back on Third Street, a woman stepped off the curb into a crosswalk as the Cadillac approached, even though the light was still green for motor traffic. The vehicle came to a halt.
What was the ride like over all?
Braking throughout the trip felt slightly little less smooth than it would with an experienced human driver in control, though not unreasonably so — certainly not enough to cause alarm, though the low speeds likely played a role. Steering was relatively smooth, and the GPS display fed a constant stream of information, especially about pedestrians and potential obstructions.
Rajkumar, meanwhile, seemed to have no difficulty transitioning quickly between auto and manual mode as needed.
For Richards, the trip helped demonstrate the technology’s potential.
“It really is like riding a bicycle,” she said.