Self-driving shuttles may be traveling through downtown Grand Rapids these days, but automakers say broad acceptance for autonomous, connected, electric and shared vehicles will take more patience.
Earlier this month, the city of Grand Rapids launched public autonomous vehicles into traffic on a carefully mapped route in Grand Rapids. Similar shuttles from Ann Arbor-based start-up May Mobility have also taken to the streets in Detroit, Columbus, Ohio and Providence, Rhode Island, but the installation in Grand Rapids is the “largest and most complex” in the world, according to city.
The city partnered with a consortium of eight private companies on the system, which will pick up and drop off passengers along the fixed route between downtown Grand Rapids and the city’s west side.
The first-of-its-kind partnership brings together enterprise and infrastructure to gather and analyze critical information to better understand the usage of autonomous vehicles in a city environment. The route includes 20 stops, 30 traffic lights and 12 turns, including three left turns.
Despite being packed with the latest technology, the autonomous vehicles will still have an “attendant” on board — just in case.
Automakers still have a lot to learn about autonomy, according to experts at the annual Management Briefing Seminars for automakers and suppliers held by the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR).
The road to self-driving vehicles seemed to be “paved in gold”, but is proving to be more complex — and expensive — than expected, Frarid Khairallah, director of safety domain control units at Germany-based supplier ZF Group, said at MBS.
In the face of complex challenges and even tragedy, such as a pedestrian collision with a driverless bus in Vienna last month, the industry is taking a “more sober, practical point of view” when it comes to the potential of “Level 5” autonomy, which describes vehicles independent of human control, with no pedals or steering wheel.
Cruise Automation, an autonomy startup that was acquired by General Motors in 2016, hoped to launch its self-driving ride-hailing service by the end of the year. However, in July, the company said it was delaying its plans, citing issues like near-accidents, erratic braking and steering, and stranded passengers.
Popular ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft — which together lost $5.8 billion in the second quarter — were also reportedly betting on autonomous services, but new research from MIT shows that operating driverless vehicles might actually cost the companies more than traditional vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles, or what the industry has now taken to calling “automated vehicles,” are much more achievable at Level 2, where the vehicle can steer and stop itself but requires someone in the driver’s seat, according to ZF’s Khairallah.
Level 5 vehicles would need “one million times” more computer processing power than current modern vehicles, he said.
In Ohio, Honda is working on ways to achieve a “collision-free” society by connecting vehicles to the infrastructure around them using mounted cameras. The technology, dubbed “vehicle to infrastructure” or V2I, will enable cars to detect approaching traffic and pedestrians regardless of buildings or other sensor barriers, according to Sue Bai, chief engineer in the automobile technology research division of Honda R&D Americas.
The automaker is using V2I to give vehicles a better view of intersections — where more than 20 percent of all traffic fatalities occur.
“If we can fix this problem, we can save hundreds of peoples’ lives every year,” Bai said during the CAR event.
However, the technology — which is being tested on a 35-mile corridor north of Columbus — is still a long way from becoming a part of the lives of everyday Americans.
“It takes a long time for the automotive industry to develop an automotive-grade technology,” she said. “People need to understand these are not one-year, two-year projects. They literally take decades to mature.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Grand Rapids autonomous vehicle program was launched by the city of Grand Rapids, not the Interurban Transit Partnership (known as The Rapid) as previously reported. We regret the error.