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June 5, 2018

MSU's autonomous vehicles workshop shapes policy conversation

Self-driving cars bring great opportunity – and great risk. While some support autonomous vehicles in the name of efficiency, others point to recent accidents as a hazard humans can’t face. Experts from Michigan State University gathered leaders in business, government and academia to discuss the societal implications this technology presents and how we can best prepare for its inevitable presence.

“It’s robots in the wild,” said Brian Pentland, Main Street Capital Partners Endowed Professor in the Eli Broad College of Business. “If you go into a factory, robots are typically in areas where you cannot go unless the power is off and the locks are carefully unlocked. Now we’re saying, ‘No problem; we’ll have thousands of them running around downtown.’”

The Workshop on Autonomous Vehicles in Society, sponsored by the National Science Foundation  and hosted by MSU’s Center for Business and Social Analytics, Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and the School of Planning, Design and Construction, identified common research themes related to driverless cars and how politics, academics and businesses could address them together.

Participating in the workshop, which included interactive panels and an autonomous vehicle demonstration, were thought-leaders from American Center for Mobility, the Nissan Research Center, University College London, KPMG and the City of Detroit.

“This shift to driverless cars requires everyone from automakers to consumers, insurers to planners and officials at all levels of government to work together,” said Mark Wilson, professor and program director of Urban and Regional Planning. “Being proactive about guiding this technological change is essential. Rather than waiting until it happens or leaving it for the last minute, now is the time for education, thoughtful discussion and planning.”

As discussed in the workshop, issues related to autonomous vehicles exceed those of engineering and technology. They also become economic, cultural, social, planning and policy topics as well.

“Technical design is social design,” Pentland said. “What optimizes the performance of the vehicle will almost certainly have an effect on cities. Any kind of change you make is going to tend to generate winners and losers. That’s where the politics come in, and values.”

One of the key discussions at the workshop was autonomous vehicles’ potential to enhance efficiency. For example, autonomous cars used simply to taxi people in urban areas may be much cheaper to produce than more robust cars for general use. That may make it cheap enough to viably replace buses and mass transit.

“But if you start doing that, what happens at a concert or sporting event where 50,000 people are going to arrive at once, each in their own autonomous vehicle?” Pentland said. “What about the drop-off and pick-up area with thousands of cars queued up? How’s that going to work?”

The layers of regulations, laws and urban redesigns may hinder vehicles’ integration into society. Their greatest challenge, Pentland said, is social acceptance.

“Even if the economics are very strong in a particular direction, autonomous vehicles are by no means an inevitable thing,” Pentland said. “It’s just fascinating.”

When it will happen depends on who you believe. Some say in as little as a couple of years driverless driving will be widely apparent, with some urban areas seeing a significant amount of such traffic by 2030. “Other people say 50 years from now we’ll still be having this conversation,” Pentland said.

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