Orange County Branch Newsletter

March 2018

Local News

The Self-Driving Car Revolution in LA

By Robert Martinez, E.I.T.



Los Angeles was host to an impressive and informative tech-talk on December 1st at Los Angeles City Hall.  Perched atop the city, “The Self-Driving Car Revolution: a TechFire Summit” brought together top leaders from Silicon Valley, Washington DC, and beyond to discuss the future of Autonomous Vehicles, the policies that should be implemented, and the impact those will have on our society.  Speakers for the event included Chris Urmson, Founder/CEO of Aurora Innovation, former director of Google’s Self Driving Car Project; Heidi King, Deputy Administrator for the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration; Councilman Mike Bonin, Los Angeles City Council Transportation Chair; Randy Iwasaki, PE, Executive Director for Contra Costa Transportation Authority / Gomentum Station; and Bran Ferren, Co-Founder, Chief Creative Officer, Applied Minds.  Members of the audience represented a diverse crowd including engineers, local politicians, insurance agents, entertainment industry representatives, business owners and many more.

MC for the event was David Murphy, CEO of TechFire, who compared the moment we are in to the horse and buggy transition to automobiles.  He encouraged the audience with a cautionary optimistic message that a true revolution is on the horizon, but that we must start thinking about the implications that come with new technology including how we think about redoing the urban landscape and the economic need of workers that may be displaced. 

The first speaker, Chris Urmson, shared some of his background with his involvement in “The Grand Challenge,” a competition to have a vehicle drive itself from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without human guidance or intervention.  His first attempt in 2004 ended how most of us would imagine, in a burst of flames.  A year later, five teams had completed the challenge. He worked a short time for Google’s Self Driving Car Project before ultimately starting his own company, Aurora Innovation, which now focuses on delivering innovative software solutions for the complex process of crunching all the tech data.  His goals are to bring this new technology to the automotive industry to improve safety and reliability of autonomous vehicles. 

Safety, then, proved to be the highlight of the show.  Heidi King, Deputy Administrator for the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) began discussing safety implications that self-driving cars will bring about.  The role of NHTSA is to reduce injuries resulting from traffic collisions and to reduce economic costs resulting from those crashes.  Last year alone, 37,461 lives were lost as a result of automotive accidents. However, as studies show, from the staggering statistic here, 94% of collisions result from human error.  In hopes of lowering this harm the NHTSA has released their vision for safety:  establish guidance that asks manufacturers to provide a voluntary self-assessment on 12 safety design features and include best practices for state and local governments.  But why a voluntary guidance?  Mrs. King explained that the technology leaps and bounds are incredibly difficult to predict; the idea is to create a community that offers transparency in developing technology together, collaboratively, encouraging a dialogue between policy makers and visionaries.

The next speaker, Councilman Mike Bonin, a true visionary politician himself, was able to pose difficult questions that ultimately help focus the discussion back on societal impacts.  Looking back at the invention of the combustion engine and Americans’ dependency on the automobile we can see how this has had a transformative effect on our communities and shared experience.  By allowing convenient access we have essentially pushed each other apart as apparent by urban sprawl.  He challenges the audience by asking if autonomous vehicles will not perpetuate that if we no longer dread the commute. Queue the Entertainment industry eager for new viewership.  Another issue he discussed is who will own these vehicles?  Queue the Insurance industry trying to figure out who is at fault. Not only who will own these vehicles, but what impacts would a shared mobility vehicle bring to those in poverty?  He then shared a statistic that most probably have never considered: there are 12 times as many jobs available to an individual that can arrive by car than by mass transit in LA.  LA has been on the forefront of new innovation and technology and his goals for the future focus on the keywords – connect, share, electric.  This is evident with a pilot program for shared electric vehicles targeting low income communities to address equity.  His take away message is that we need to start thinking about the impacts and implications of this coming technological advancement to avoid making some of the mistakes we have made in the past.  As he put it, “after revolution you need a constitution.”

The next speaker, Randy Iwasaki, P.E., is the Executive Director for the Transportation Authority in Contra Costa County and he shared innovative ideas and practices that are being experimented in Northern California and how they are trying to redefine mobility.  On top of the bus pass program for underprivileged kids, funding local street and road improvement projects and helping fund BART, they also helped deliver 25 years of construction projects in 10 years.  He presented on smart cities, the idea that infrastructure can communicate and a city can provide better information to help drive smarter and make more informed decisions.  They have developed a testing facility on a naval base with conditions intentionally set up to trick some of the smartest sensors in the market in an effort to bring smart jobs to the area.

As the final speaker, Bran Ferren, Co Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Applied Minds, already featured in a similar Ted-Talk, really drove home the need for collaboration between the thinkers and the policy makers.  He likened the difficulty in getting automotive manufacturers to shift their focus from the driveline and performance of their vehicles to smart technology and software applications to trying to sell Wilbur and Orville Wright on the idea that frequent flyer miles would revolutionize the airline industry.  The point he is trying to make is that – over time peoples’ perceptions change; the way our grandparents viewed their custom built hot rod is different from the way a family views their minivan to transport busy lives which, in turn, is different from the single use autonomous vehicles that will transport millennials.  “Part of the challenge is having flexibility in empowering people’s lives and understanding that cars are not just about basic transportation, they are about passion.  They are about self-image. If you ignore those things you are going to have a hard problem because that’s the way the community is feeling.”  What we see now are automotive companies shifting the focus to transportation services and taking a step back to add a bit of perspective.  “The future of intelligent cities is looking at them as a system and self-driving cars as a subsystem.”

Mr. Ferren’s closing remarks really helped drive home the importance of collaboration moving forward and the difficulties still to overcome.

“There really are two kinds of people that are driving this revolution.  On the one side, there are requirements people. Their view is that we have to put out a set of rules, regulations, requirements that will establish the roadmap forward, and then, we will all follow those to reach an optimal solution. The other process is driven by big idea people, who basically say, ‘I just have a vision for the future and I’m going to do it and try to stop me.’ Big idea people are on this side of the room and regulatory people are on that side of the room.  These people hate each other, it’s as simple as that.  If we get the two working together to put a process in place where there is mutual respect, we could realize our mutual goals much faster. So why would they do this?  People who have different DNA and the way they think about the world? Simple – because they will both fail if they don’t.  Once you get scared enough to realize that your future depends upon collaborating with people who have a different way of thinking about the world than you do, then you have the basis to move forward. What’s exciting to me is that it’s starting to happen now, which is a good sign for the future.”

After an intense question and answer session, the event ended with an optimistic and collaborative tone.  We are at a very interesting point in time, a revolution is happening and it is promising to see so many industries coming together to guide the way forward.  How we handle the challenges ahead will be felt by generations to come.  The Self Driving Car Revolution is upon us and we all have a chance to take the wheel.

Video and transcript from the event are available online: https://www.c-span.org/video/?437549-1/driving-automobiles

For more information on Techfire including upcoming events visit: http://www.techfire.co/

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