Driving into the future

TMA Bucks participated in Pennsylvania’s first Automated Vehicle Summit earlier this month

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

When Hollywood portrays the futuristic world, viewers are often met with robotic house maids and flying cars. Though we probably won’t see these things in our lifetime, they may not be completely out of the question. In just the past few decades, we’ve seen astounding technological advances in phones, computers and even cars. Who knows what we’ll have in just a few more? Earlier this month, TMA Bucks executive director Steve Noll experienced firsthand the great strides being made in the automobile world at Pennsylvania’s first Automated Vehicle Summit.

Start your engines: Earlier this month, TMA Bucks executive director Steve Noll experienced firsthand the strides being made in the automobile world at Pennsylvania’s first Automated Vehicle Summit. Although most fully automated vehicles look like any average car from the outside, the technology running them is evident once you look inside. PHOTO: Steve Noll

TMA Bucks, a private 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, works to improve transportation and promote travel safety throughout Bucks County. With this as its mission, it only made sense to have a representative attend the conference to learn how automated cars may eventually impact the local community.

The summit, convened by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on Sept. 11–12 and held at the Ramada State College Hotel and Conference Center, welcomed more than 300 transportation officials, academic and industry experts, and public officials among others to discuss and learn how automated vehicle technology is shaping the next generation of travel.

Noll went into the conference with a preconceived notion of what to expect. But after his one and a half days of speaking with other industry professionals, he left with a much different perspective. Upon arrival, he expected to see flashy cars of the future driving themselves, but quickly learned this isn’t necessarily what “automated vehicle” implies.

Though driverless cars with virtually no human interaction would be ideal, it won’t be reality for many years to come. Still, whether we realize it, society has been using portions of automated technology for more than 30 years in the form of features such as cruise control and anti-lock brakes.

“It’s anytime you’re yielding control,” he said of automated technology.

Noll explained there is a range of automation. A level zero would be a manual car with no cruise control while a 10 would be fully automated. But even a car at the highest level would need a licensed driver behind the wheel even if they’re not steering, according to Pennsylvania state law.

“An automated vehicle doesn’t necessarily imply driverless,” Noll said.

During the summit, Noll had the pleasure of experiencing a fully automated Cadillac SUV, which was bought and altered by a group of students from Carnegie Mellon University. As this was his first time in a self-driving car, he was a little uneasy, especially as the driver sat back away from the wheel to admire the scenery they were passing.

Though the car was able to brake and accelerate on its own, he could feel some glitches and pauses that made the ride feel more “computerized” than if a human was controlling everything. Before getting in the Cadillac, Noll said he couldn’t even tell it was any different from an average car. It wasn’t until it was in motion that he heard the sounds of mechanical whirring coming from the trunk.

Despite these great technological advances, many of the discussions that took place at the summit came to the same conclusion — there are still major questions as to the implications fully automated cars will have.

“Driverless cars by the year 2020 is unlikely,” Noll said.

Just like the arrival of the automobile drastically changed things in America, it didn’t happen overnight. According to Noll, most cars on the road have a lifespan of 10 years, so even if fully automated cars become the norm, it would most likely happen in phases with older cars intermingling with these new models.

One summit panel consisted entirely of lawyers, who touched on the question of liability.

“Now you look for breach of care on the driver. What if the car is driving itself?” Noll asked.

The lawyers explained how new legislation would need to be created for this new situation of whether the driver would be blamed or the manufacturer for a technological glitch in their product.

There is also the concern of relying entirely on a machine. As many of us know, computers and smartphones do not run perfectly, sporadically freezing or restarting at the most inconvenient times. If a driver was in the middle of a busy highway during rush hour, the last thing they’d need is for their automated car to fail.

While Noll’s conclusion after his time spent at the summit is that there’s a lot of work to be done in the world of automated vehicles, he sees great potential in the technology for certain populations such as older people or those with disabilities. In the meantime, the automobile industry will continue to evolve and enhance its technology, so only time will tell what the future holds.

“What we know is that we don’t know,” he said. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com