Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for KPCC comes from:

The road to self-driving cars in LA

Ways to Subscribe
Volvo Cars and Uber join forces to develop autonomous driving cars
Volvo and Uber have partnered to develop self-driving cars

The first self-driving vehicles in the city are likely to be low-speed shuttles on college campuses

We all know the robots are coming. They’re coming for our jobs and, like it or not, they’re coming for our cars. The question is: When, exactly, will they be here?

“It is happening faster than you know it," says Jack Weast, head of the automated driving group for computer chip maker, Intel, whose data systems will be used in pretty much every self-driving car once they get to market. That will be "before the end of the decade," he says.

But not all at once. What type of autonomous vehicle shows up, and where, will vary by task.

"Low speed shuttles within college campuses, industrial parks, closed communities going 25 mph or less with no drivers, that’s closer than one would think," says Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation.

What that means locally is that self-driving vehicles are likely to show up first on college campuses like UCLA and USC, both of which the city of LA recently designated as proving grounds for self-driving cars.

Parts of an autonomous future are already here, at least in pieces. Do you have a car with adaptive cruise control? How about automated emergency braking or lane-keep assistance? Those are the building blocks for cars that will kick humans out of the driver’s seat around the time we’re electing our next president.

What's the rush? Safety.

“If my car is talking to your car, you and I are much less likely to run into each other when we approach an intersection," Dougherty says. "If my car is talking to the signal, I’m also less likely to run a red light by accident… so there’s a lot of technology than can help protect us from ourselves.”

About 40,000 Americans die each year in traffic crashes -- 3,500 of which are in California, 260 in LA.

“How many of those people should come from your family?" Dougherty asks.

It's a rhetorical question. In an ideal world, no one, which is why California is not only advocating for self-driving cars but spending a big chunk of money to tweak the state’s infrastructure and invest in so-called intelligent transportation systems like two-way traffic signals and ramp meters that communicate directly with cars.

It's working on making roads easier for self-driving cars to navigate -- doing things like removing those jarring botts dots that separate lanes, and replacing them with thicker painted lines that are easier for self driving cars to read.

"I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that autonomous technology is coming, and cities can be future guiding and we can get ready for it and develop a vision for it, or it can just happen to us,” says Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

She's determined to figure out how autonomous technology will work in the real world, by inviting companies to test their cars here. She's not exactly sure what the city will learn from these tests, but she's positive LA’s infrastructure will have to change.

“One of the potential outcomes if we move to a world where you’re getting a shared vehicle in an autonomous taxi is ... that we maybe don’t need as much land for parking.”

Right now, LA county has 200 square miles of parking, which could be transformed into parks, schools and housing.

Then there's curb space -- always at a premium in LA. Technology will allow the city to change street parking zones on the fly. And make some money.

“If you want to use a bus stop red zone," Reynolds says, "maybe there’s a pathway for you to pay for that if you are a private transit provider."

Like Lyft, which predicts the majority of its rides will be done in autonomous cars within five years.

As long as nothing catastrophic happens between now and then.

“There’s definitely a double standard, that we expect the machine to do things we wouldn’t expect of ourselves," says Todd Benoff,  an LA-based automotive liability attorney with the Alston & Bird law firm. “We hold them to a much higher standard than we hold ourselves.”

How much higher of a standard?  That's just one of many open questions as we inch closer to a self-driving future.

“Can a 10-year-old get behind an autonomous vehicle?” asks the California DOT's Malcolm Dougherty. "If I’m out drinking, can I get behind an AV if I’m not driving? These are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

But when they are, Intel’s Jack Weast predicts our reaction to cars that drive themselves will be a lot like how we once thought about the internet, or smart phones.

"We'll all be surprised at how quickly we get comfortable with the technology and … have a tough time imagining how we ever got along without it.”

Stay Connected