TTI panel: Travel going high-tech

Ginger Gooden (from left), Mike Manser and Ed Seymore shared their ideas on the future of transportation in the orientation room at The Bush Library on Thursday night. More autonomous vehicle, they said, will bring new possibilities — but also new challenges as the technology is implemented.

Representatives from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute on Thursday walked audience members through the possibilities and challenges relating to driverless and connected vehicles over the next decade during an issues forum at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Looking at the potentially not-so-distant future through the lenses of technology, safety and policy, the panel gave a broad overview of what may be to come. Connected cars feature devices that connect with other cars, home, office or infrastructure. For example, internet access could provide connections that would warn drivers of traffic problems or collisions up ahead. Connected cars also can connect within the car and notify drivers of problems with oil pressure or a low tire.

TTI Executive Associate Agency Director and Chief Research Officer Bill Stockton opened up the conversation by comparing the rapidly accelerating field with the recent growth seen in smartphone application stores over the past decade, noting that the details surrounding driverless and connected vehicles could see a similar growth.

"In 2008, there were 800 apps for an iPhone -- now there are more than 2 million," Stockton said. "That's an indicator of the pace of change."

When looking at the technology and the cultural impact it could have, TTI Executive Associate Agency Director Ed Seymour said he believes the technology will reach a "tipping point" in the next six years that will help transform the automobile industry. 

Whenever that change occurs, however, Seymour said it is likely to have a "profound impact" on society, infrastructure and the ways in which people get from place to place.

"[The future] will be richer, more interconnected and really more profound on us in the ways that we work and play," Seymour said.

On the safety side, TTI Senior Research Scientist and Human Factors Program Manager Mike Manser said in the lead up to fully autonomous vehicles, the goal will be to develop a better collaboration between cars and their drivers while on the road.

"Cars are terrible dance partners, but they're getting better," Manser said. "I contend that eventually one day we're going to be doing tangos with our cars. It is going to be such a close and intimate relationship that it will be almost seamless how the two interact together."

He added, however, that there are potential issues with that innovation. 

Specifically, he noted consistency across vehicle manufacturers as a challenge that will need to be addressed.

"Humans are incredibly adept at forming habits," Manser said. 

As an example, he explained that if one manufacturer implements a safety feature -- such as sensor indicating when the driver should brake -- that is even slightly different from another manufacturer, drivers who occasionally use more than one vehicle could become confused by the differences, leading to new dangers when trying to ensure safety.   

"When you try to move innovation forward, usually technology is not the issue -- it's the policy and the institutional issues," Ginger Goodin, director of the Transportation Policy Research Center at TTI, said.

Although there are hurdles to cross, she said TTI is working to do its part by collaborating with the Texas A&M University Law School to "audit" state laws for particular points of discrepancy that may come up as lawmakers seek to integrate the regulation of driverless vehicles.

Looking forward, the panel agreed that while widespread adoption is probably still decades away, a noticeable implementation of driverless and connected vehicles could be hitting the roads within the next 10 years. 

"I think it will be faster than we assume," Seymour said. "A few years ago, I would have said [it would be] decades, but now with all of the companies lining up to say they want to get it out the door in the next five years, it's coming." 

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