UMass experts explain autonomous vehicle challenges at 1st transportation listening session

  • Shlomo Zilberstein, a computer science professor at the University of Massachusetts, speaks at the first listening session held by a new commission on transportation charged with exploring changes over the next two decades. Zilberstein and two other professors discussed the future of autonomous vehicles at Tuesday’s session on the UMass Amherst campus. HANNAH NELSON

For the Gazette
Published: 5/30/2018 12:04:57 AM

AMHERST — Experts from the University of Massachusetts spelled out the steep hurdles that remain before autonomous vehicles are able to change people’s lives at the first listening sessions by a new commission created by the governor earlier this year.

The vehicles are expensive, only work under certain conditions and there is no simple way to design a list of exceptions to deal with situations that drivers currently encounter every time they get behind the wheel.

Because of these reasons, “a lot has to change for autonomous vehicles to really live up to their hype,” said Shannon Roberts, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UMass.

Roberts spoke before the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation on Tuesday. The commission, formed in January, is currently exploring how transportation will be impacted over the next two decades by anticipated changes in technology, climate, land use, demographics and the economy.

The commission’s goal is not to provide specific recommendations for projects or investments, but to focus on the larger picture of the future of transportation, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, a commission member, explained at Tuesday’s session held on UMass’s flagship campus.

Each session is designed to focus on a different transportation topic, the first being autonomous and connected vehicles.

A panel of three UMass Amherst professors gave background on autonomous vehicles and the challenges that exist in designing the technology.

Computer science professor Shlomo Zilberstein has worked with Nissan and GM in developing technologies that increase autonomous vehicle safety in complex intersections, as well as aid in a smoother transition between automation and human driving. He explained that there are many challenges ahead for the autonomous vehicle industry.

“The main issue is that you need to work with exceptions, and there isn’t really a simple way to develop a list of exceptions,” said Zilberstein, who is also an associate dean for research and engagement in the College of Information and Computer Sciences.

Shannon Roberts, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, explained other issues with the autonomous vehicle industry. Currently, autonomous vehicles only work under certain conditions.

“The Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise systems only work on highways, even though people use them in situations they should not,” said Roberts.

This can be illustrated by several high profile car crashes, such as a fatal Tesla crash in May of 2016.

She also explained that autonomous vehicles are extremely expensive, as much as $50,000. Therefore, the market is currently only accessible to a certain demographic. Because of these reasons she said that “a lot has to change for autonomous vehicles to really live up to their hype.”

Eric Gonzales, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, spoke about how transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, could be the first to employ fleets of autonomous vehicles. These companies already provide a communication platform for ride sourcing, meaning they match people looking for a ride with a driver in the area.

Gonzales explained that today, there are four times as many of these vehicles than taxis in Manhattan, and 40 percent of the time they are vacant, “cruising around, not actually providing productive mobility.” Autonomous vehicle technology could be used in the future to eliminate the need for drivers, cutting labor costs for the companies significantly.

Autonomous vehicles could also be used to promote efficiency by coordinating fleets to get more and more passengers together who are going in the same direction.

Community members asked questions and shared ideas on the future of transportation, such as a high school curriculum that would give students the opportunity to learn about automation technology and join the workforce after graduation.

Another audience member encouraged the commission to include autonomous air vehicles such as drones in their discussions. The importance of private sector support of autonomous vehicle technology was also discussed.

“The future of transportation requires a partnership between government, academia and the private sector, in terms of investing in research, designing and building infrastructure that will allow future transportation solutions, and obviously enacting policies and laws that will govern the new technology,” said Zilberstein.

The next listening session will be held on June 11 at Clark University in Worcester and will focus on transportation electrification.


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