SUBSCRIBE
CONTACT
ABOUT DRIVING IN THE REAL WORLD

Driving in the Real WorldTM is a change agent for driving safely and efficiently in the real world. Many driver's education programs, especially in the United States, do not adequately train people in hazard perception, risk management, and proper handling of the complex challenges of everyday driving. Through its blog, social media, and upcoming subscription newsletter, DITRWTM offers tips, techniques, and reflections on driving that will improve your situational awareness and may even save your life and that of others.

There is an enormous need to make our roads safer by making it socially unacceptable to be a bad driver in America, regardless of the cause. We must completely rethink how we drive and how we teach it, and then make the driving test something to actually be respected. Driver's ed should also be a lifelong learning process. And I believe that this can be achieved in much more fun, enjoyable, and experiential ways than it is often presented now.

Many people don't realize this, but what makes you a better driver also improves you in many other areas of life. This involves honest self-examination of our core values as both a society and the individuals that constitute it, and truly making the necessary changes to improve our attitudes on the road.

Thank you so much for visiting. I invite readers to share their own experiences and reflections on driving, to suggest ideas on the subject, and to follow me on Twitter (@DrivingReal).

—Mi Ae

 

ARCHIVED

Entries in congestion (3)

Wednesday
Mar292017

What’s the Big Deal with Self-Driving Cars, Anyway?

These days, you can’t go a week without hearing something in the news media about self-driving cars and autonomous driving. So what is it all about, and what could it mean for you?

You might be surprised to hear that this has been around longer than you might suspect. As far back as 1939, futuristic projections were being touted by General Motors (GM) in their Futurama automated highway, complete with no-hands-needed cars. In the 1950s, GM and RCA demonstrated an automated highway system using radio control for speed and steering, but getting consensus for technology and infrastructure standards were as challenging then as now, and their grand plans never bore fruit.

Significant advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) in the 1960s made the possibility of self-driving vehicles ever more real, and in the 1980s and 1990s, sample stretches of road in San Francisco and Europe were tested with technology that communicated directly with vehicles. But it hasn’t been until the past decade that advancements in computer processors, software, and radar and laser sensors have enabled quantum leaps in self-driving technology.

At this point, nearly every major automotive manufacturer is working on autonomous technology, and the race is on to create the world’s first fully self-driving car, with Google and Tesla the most high-profile players. Already we’re seeing semi-autonomous tech in the form of adaptive cruise control, blind-spot assistance, automatic braking systems, and lane-keep steering functions.

So what’s the big fuss about self-driving cars? The biggest is safety. According to the World Health Organization, road collisions caused 1.25 million deaths worldwide in 2013, and a 2011 American Automobile Association study concluded that car crashes cost the United States $300 billion annually. Self-driving technology could bring these numbers down to a mere fraction by propelling vehicles at proper speeds and spacing them effectively, while avoiding the associated injuries, deaths, and vehicle damage.

There are other enormous benefits to self-driving cars. Currently, the typical vehicle represents a lot of waste. We actually drive it only a tiny fraction of the day; it sits in a garage, parking lot, or on the street the rest of the time. But imagine if such a vehicle were self-driving and could be shared between multiple users. It could pull up at your house, take you to work, and then drop you off to pick up an elderly couple to take them grocery shopping. After that it could be summoned by someone else who needs a ride, and so on.

It’s been estimated that on average 30 percent of all vehicles cruising about in a city are looking for parking. If self-driving vehicles were continually serving consumers, there wouldn’t be a need for so much parking space on the street or in garages and lots. This space—always scarce in cities—could be devoted to parks, recreational areas, or even housing.

Congestion would improve as well, since self-driving cars can be programmed to follow one another much more closely in a phenomenon known as platooning. Roadway capacity could be increased as much as 45 percent in some areas, which reduces commute times and fuel consumption. This is a boon not to be ignored in areas with limited public transportation or extreme density.

Self-driving vehicles, if adopted en masse, could profoundly change other business landscapes as well. The need for insurance would be greatly reduced or even eliminated. With fewer vehicles needed to serve multiple people, car sales themselves would drop significantly. And one of the hottest areas for autonomous technology is the commercial trucking industry. These implications are interesting, to say the least, but it is being considered as a possible solution to the current shortage of truck drivers.

Aside from reductions in injuries and fatalities, there are other huge human benefits. Elderly people who can no longer safely drive would now have a way to maintain their independence and dignity without endangering or inconveniencing others. The same holds true for disabled people, children, and other populations who cannot drive themselves.

But of course, many huge issues must be ironed out before truly self-driving cars can be commonplace. Security is one; although hacking a self-driving car is not an easy task, it can be done, as several high-profile incidents have already shown. Another is that current self-driving technology relies in part on clear lane markings and accurate GPS mapping systems to be effective; we all know from experience that our nation’s road infrastructure and GPS at present are simply not up to snuff to ensure the necessary reliability.

Self-driving technology is also only as good as its computer programming and algorithms; if a self-driving vehicle encounters a situation in which it has to hit something, will it sacrifice itself and its driver, or the obstacles (potentially human) that lie in its path? And then who is legally liable for that incident? The automaker, the driver, or even the vehicle’s software creator?

There is the human factor as well. Drivers initially may not trust the technology, but once they do and become reliant on it, they may eventually lose the driving skills necessary to take over the vehicle in an emergency. The most dangerous time may well be right now—the “in-between” period when some vehicle functions are semi-autonomous for limited periods but still require the driver to be alert and skilled enough to take over at any moment.

Still, the potential consequences of self-driving cars are, at the very least, a game-changer for the positive. Of course, many of us can’t imagine—and completely reject—a world in which we can’t pilot our own vehicle. Most days, I count myself as one of those.

But an interesting double standard emerges when it comes to autonomous cars. The infamous May 7, 2016 fatality where a Tesla in Autopilot mode ran into the side of a semi truck in Florida garnered worldwide media attention, fueling the controversies of self-driving car safety. (Contrary to its name, Autopilot is not intended to be used as a substitute for the human driver.) In spite of the millions of miles that have been logged by Google cars and other self-driving vehicles, the media pounces every time a self-driving car has a collision (nearly all of them the fault of the human driver on board).

And yet, over 38,000 Americans alone died in traffic collisions in 2015. That means 73 jumbo jets of passengers dying annually, or 1.4 planeloads’ worth every week. Yet, there is no national outcry over this staggering statistic and hardly any media attention other than a tired end-of-year blip. Somehow we consider this normal—just the cost of driving in America, business as usual. It is just because we perceive ourselves as not being in control in a self-driving car that the possibility of death—even just one—suddenly becomes more egregious.

Personally, I think I’d much rather take my chances any day on roads filled with self-driving cars than be surrounded by inattentive drivers totally distracted by their electronic devices. Just sayin’.

 

Friday
May272011

Save Gas and Prevent Traffic Jams: Don’t Brake

If you need to brake on an onramp, it usually means you were entering too fast in the first place.

These days when gasoline is averaging four dollars a gallon, talk is turning once again to more fuel-efficient vehicles. It takes drastic spikes in oil prices to make us even consider hybrids and electric alternatives, and in our SUV-saturated road culture, our inefficient driving habits die hard (most urban traffic congestion consists largely of single-occupant vehicles). But regardless of what you drive, you can start making a difference right now.

Just don’t brake.

This may sound insane, because of course it is necessary to stop or decelerate sometimes. We do need to brake or slow down for red and yellow traffic lights, stop signs, pedestrians, sudden obstructions, stopped traffic, parking, emergencies, steep inclines, right-angle turns, or any other situation where not doing so would clearly lead to a bad day. But outside of these situations, much of our braking is completely unnecessary, because what it really means is that we were going too fast in the first place.

Braking and accelerating are part of a cycle; every time you brake, you lose engine power, which eventually has to be made up by accelerating again. The key to smooth driving is to not brake or accelerate if you don’t have to. By doing so, you conserve both fuel and your brakes.

For instance, consider the highway onramp. When was the last time you tapped the brakes as you were entering the ramp or negotiating a particularly sinuous curve? What caused you to brake? Were you going just a touch too quickly around the curve? Afraid you might lose control of your vehicle? Was another car in front of you going around the curve at a slower speed? When you merged into traffic, did you momentarily brake because you weren’t prepared for the speeds at which faster and slower vehicles were traveling behind and in front of you?

Braking is about modulating speed. What if, instead of braking, you just slowed down enough so you could go into the curve smoothly without taking your foot off the gas? Or you factored in the speed of the car in front of you? Or looked up way ahead to see who is merging in front of or behind you and then just adjust your speed accordingly?

Here in Seattle, I often drive in congested traffic with either my foot just lightly on the gas pedal, or coasting if I am on a downward incline (but not in neutral, which is actually illegal in many states). By not having a heavy foot on the accelerator, paying attention to and anticipating traffic flow, watching out for changes in incline and grade and how they affect my momentum (which often creeps up really fast), and maintaining a safe following distance, I can easily go for miles, even in fairly heavy traffic, without having to touch the brake pedal once.

And this is especially valuable in congested highway traffic, where the braking done by a single car often triggers an accordion-like wave of braking behind it, causing drivers to halt and thus pile up. If drivers just slowed down in the first place and maintained proper following distances, traffic would keep moving (albeit slowly, but it would keep moving). Indeed, you can single-handedly prevent such a traffic backup just by not braking unnecessarily.

 

It starts with one driver putting on the brakes, and pretty soon it spreads like the plague.

Try this the next time you drive your typical commute. Make a game of it by seeing how few times you can brake during your drive to work or home (while being safe, of course). Modulate your speed, and lift off the accelerator more. Anticipate the traffic flow and scan the road as far ahead as possible so you’re not taken by surprise.

Driving like this takes constant attention. It is not easy to be this vigilant all the time. It may be difficult at first, but keep practicing. Before long you’ll realize how much smoother you’re driving and how much more you are “reading the road,” which is good for a lot of obvious reasons.

I estimate that on average I probably gain an extra 50 to 70 miles per tank of fuel by using these techniques, as well as saving extra wear and tear on brake pads and shoes. Depending on your vehicle and traffic conditions, you can likely increase your fuel efficiency by 10 or 20 percent just by keeping your foot off the brake and going easy on the accelerator.

 

Tuesday
Feb222011

Getting Involved: Audi UIA and SHRP2 Driving Studies

Big changes are on the horizon for car technology and drivers. So big, in fact, that a sea change is coming in how drivers and their vehicles will adapt to real-time traffic congestion and rapidly changing conditions in ways that are scarcely imaginable today. (More on this in future posts.)

To this end, the German automaker Audi and the US Transportation Research Board are launching separate research efforts that will study American driver behavior and collect roadway information over the next several years.

Audi is conducting its “Urban Intelligent Assist” project in conjunction with its own Electronics Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley, California, and four major American universities. Audi, which has already developed some of the world’s most advanced safety technology available in passenger cars, is taking such technology to another level by studying the complete process of navigation in mega-cities. By identifying common congestion spots, dangers, stresses, and other problems that drivers in major urban areas face, Audi will develop technology that will help them navigate more safely, efficiently, and with less frustration.

According to Audi’s press release, “The vision is to develop Audi models that will recognize individual motorists behind the wheel, know preferred destinations, routes the motorists have most commonly traveled, and the time needed to reach appointments. The car will be able to help the drivers detect and avoid dangerous situations better, too. … The Audi vehicles envisioned in this new project would work with a city's connected infrastructure to, for example, reserve a parking spot near the driver's desired destination and optimize the trip according to what is happening throughout the city.”

Recognizing the problems that increased technology is posing on drivers who are already multitasking, Audi acknowledges that “safety on urban roads will require a very deep understanding of the driver and his or her environment. With the proliferation of consumer electronics devices in and on-board vehicles, a major challenge in front of us is to ensure that assistance systems really help rather than distract or irritate the driver.”

The other study, funded by Congress, is the Strategic Highway Research Program’s (SHRP) Naturalistic Driving Study. About 3,100 volunteer drivers are being tapped in six major metropolitan areas, with the goal to investigate the underlying causes of highway crashes and congestion. Through the use of in-car cameras and radar, the research will record and study how the driver interacts with and adapts to the vehicle, traffic environment, roadway characteristics, traffic control devices, distractions, and the environment.

The information collected will be used by transportation safety researchers for the next 20 to 40 years in designing roadways, traffic engineering systems, public policy, and infrastructure improvements. Ultimately the hope is to reduce the incidence of traffic collisions and fatalities.

SHRP is still recruiting drivers to participate. If you are interested, please contact them at 1-877-495-1556, and more info about the study is available on their website: http://www.shrp2nds.us/index.html