Experts discuss the future of autonomous vehicles

Automobile manufacturers such as Tesla and General Motors have partial self-driving vehicles on the road today, and some experts think fully autonomous vehicles are just around the corner.

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) hosted a forum Friday at Brand Library in Glendale, during which members of a panel discussed the possible impacts of self-driving vehicles on communities and commuters.

The event rounded out Glendale’s annual Tech Week, created in 2016 to provide a series of events surrounding advancements and innovations in the tech industry.

Juanita Martinez, a regional manager for General Motors, said autonomous vehicles will be available to the public, but the level of autonomy will vary.

The automaker currently sells vehicles with self-driving features, but the company’s system and the one found in Tesla’s vehicles require the driver to remain engaged throughout the drive.

Martinez said General Motors has been working on a fully autonomous vehicle that doesn’t require a driver, and it plans to implement a small fleet of those cars in a controlled environment next year.

“Before we ever put an autonomous vehicle out on the road for public use, we are looking at the safety of those vehicles and we’re doing thousands of hours of testing,” she said.

Rena Davis, senior public policy manager for Lyft, said the ride-sharing company is also developing its own fleet of fully autonomous vehicles, adding that driverless vehicles could appear within our lifetime.

Lyft is currently testing its autonomous systems in Las Vegas, where passengers can catch a ride around the city in a self-driving vehicle. However, these cars still have a driver and co-driver in the front seats should anything go wrong.

“If anybody’s got kids getting ready to start in high school in the next couple of years, they might be going to prom in an [autonomous vehicle],” Davis said.

While companies like General Motors and Lyft have ambitions to bring self-driving cars to the masses, Caltech researcher Jin Ge said there are still many hurdles to overcome when building a fully autonomous vehicle.

She outlined the levels of automation developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers International.

Level zero means zero autonomy, which means the driver controls the speed and direction of the vehicle.

The self-driving cars on the road today are at level two, which means the vehicle can adjust speed and steer but requires a driver to be behind the wheel and pay attention to road conditions.

Ge said technology is available to build a vehicle with level-four or level-five automation, in which the car is in full control and requires no input from the driver.

However, problems lie within designing and engineering the software that lets vehicles drive themselves.

She said vehicles can be programmed to do specific actions when certain incidents occur, like braking if they detect a child or stop sign ahead. However, engineers have yet to find a way to let vehicles understand ethical driving behaviors, such as pulling over when involved in a crash.

As partially self-driving vehicles become more prevalent, Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said cities should be looking at ways to prepare their infrastructures to accommodate autonomous cars.

One way city officials can help themselves and automakers is if they start digitizing their infrastructures. This would allow car engineers to use the city’s data to know every street, traffic signal and stop sign and input that information into the vehicles to improve traffic flow.

“We’ve started thinking thoughtfully about what is the role of [autonomous vehicles] and how can this new technology improve our lives rather than further separate our communities,” Porras said.

Twitter: @acocarpio