San Diego's Driverless Car Tests Get People Thinking
A parking lot near the center of the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is surrounded by barracks which are home to some of the 3,000 marines who live on base. It will soon be a stop for a driverless shuttle bus.
“The initial route starts at the barracks, where we’re standing now. And it goes along the flight line where most of the work is happening,” said Major Brandon Newell, chairman of mobility transformation for the Marine Corps.
“Then it would go to the retail area before it goes to military housing, which is where families live, and then comes back over here to the barracks."
Newell said a military base has some advantages when it comes to testing driverless cars.
“For one, we’re a controlled environment. Not just anyone can get onto base. Secondly, we have low-speed limits across the base,” he said. “Third, we have a known and trainable populace, so that means we can message about what the program is. We can guarantee safety to a higher degree.”
Newell adds that a military command structure means you do not have to shear through a lot of red tape make something happen.
San Diego County is one of 10 test sites, or proving grounds, for driverless cars in a program coordinated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, urban planners, carmakers and the rest of us are trying to imagine what a world run on driverless vehicles will look like.
Testing here will range from very controlled environments, like the Miramar airbase, to the very unpredictable public streets of Chula Vista.
The City of Chula Vista, along with SANDAG, San Diego’s regional planning agency, are partnering to get the test project underway. Chula Vista city engineer Bill Valle says the entire city is a designated test site.
“Other proving grounds are simulated cities or oval tracks so there’s limited amount of testing you can do with regards to a real-world environment. Whereas our proving ground in San Diego and Chula Vista is real-world streets,” Valle said.
He added the key to the DOT’s project of designated proving grounds is to get all the sites to collaborate.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation’s vision for these proving grounds was: we want to get all the parties doing the testing talking to each other and sharing information so the advancement of autonomous vehicles can occur more rapidly, not take 30 or 40 years,” Valle said.
Another San Diego location for testing driverless cars will be UC San Diego. Henrik Christensen is director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at UCSD. He said the university will start testing driverless vehicles on UCSD campus streets at the start of next year.
“Initially it’ll be golf carts. Gradually it’ll be other kinds of vehicles. And the first thing we’ll do is autonomous mail delivery,” Christensen said. “In the beginning, we’ll have a safety driver on board to make sure we don’t run into any of the students. But eventually, we will take out the safety drivers.”
There is only one good answer to the question of how driverless vehicles will affect our cities of the future. We do not know, because it has not happened yet. We do not know who will own the driverless cars or how they will be insured.
But Christensen said the ability of driverless cars to be in constant use means we will almost certainly need a lot less parking. A former faculty member at Georgia Tech, he describes the folly of building a huge parking structure in Atlanta, which will not be paid off for 30 years.
“Most of us predict that fifteen years from now most cars will be self-driving. So it’s not clear we will still have that parking need. Why would I want to pay whatever the daily rate is 15 years from now? Instead, I will tell it to pick me up again on Tuesday and it will go wherever it needs to go.”
Ray Traynor is director of operations at SANDAG, and he said driverless cars in the future will form a network of vehicles that communicate with each other. That means their operation on the freeway will be much more efficient.
“So, for example, today you and I, as we drive down the freeway, we probably keep three car-lengths between our vehicles. Well, we’ve demonstrated back in 1997, with our automated highway demonstration here in San Diego, that you can move vehicles at a high rate of speed down a freeway spaced only 3 feet apart,” Traynor said.
“It starts to raise some questions about the need for the expansion of the freeway system,” he said. “I mean one of the things we’re looking at and hoping for is that we can optimize the use of our existing infrastructure.”
The reliance on smart, driverless cars means diminishing reliance on not-so-smart human drivers. The hope is our streets will become much safer.
And in a trend that started with Lyft and Uber, fleets of driverless cars are expected to become a service we’d order, not a commodity we own. Henrik Christensen imagines a range of driverless cars at his beck and call.
“Wednesday I’m going to the grocery store. I need a wreck, the cheapest way of going to the grocery store and back. Saturday, I’m going to IKEA or someplace like that to buy furniture. I now need a truck. And Saturday night I’m going on a hot date and I need a Ferrari!” he said.
SANDAG’s Ray Traynor says it is absolutely time to start planning for driverless cars.
“If these technologies are going to be introduced into the marketplace and they’re not guided by well-drafted public policy, it could have a number of unintended consequences,” he said. “One of the big questions transportation planners have raised is with these highly autonomous vehicles, would it lead to more urban sprawl?”
Whatever they do bring, driverless cars are coming. In fact, UCSD’s Christensen, who sees driverless vehicles dominating the streetscapes in 15 years, has a message for new parents. Kids born today will never have to drive a car.