Talking Michigan Transportation

Chief advocate for driverless vehicles explains their lifesaving potential

May 23, 2023 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 5 Episode 143
Talking Michigan Transportation
Chief advocate for driverless vehicles explains their lifesaving potential
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Jeff Farrah, executive director of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA). 

As discussed in previous installments, U.S. traffic deaths jumped 10.5 percent in 2021 to 42,915, marking the highest number killed on American roads in a single year since 2005.

Farrah talks about the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles, both in terms of passenger vehicles and commercial trucks.

He observes that many vehicles on the road today have driver assistance technologies, which help to save lives. The evolution of the technology will only enhance those safety benefits. 

On next week’s edition, the focus on safety continues as Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA, joins the podcast to talk about the troubling crash data and what can be done.

Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. This week and next I'll be speaking with national experts about it from their theme on the podcast, protecting the lives of drivers and passengers on the roads and why that only seems to be getting more difficult. In this week segment, I speak with Jeff Farrah. He's the Executive Director of AVIA, the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association about the premise of driverless vehicles and the accompanying technology to significantly reduce crashes. Next week I'll speak with Jake Nelson, who is the director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research for AAA, about the data that illustrates how crash deaths and related driver behavior changed during the pandemic and continues to be a problem. But first, once again, I'm with Jeff Farrah of AVIA. Thank you, Jeff for coming on to talk about these important issues. 

Jeff Farrah: Well, Jeff, thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate it. And this is an exciting time, the autonomous vehicle industry and super glad to be excited about to be talking with you today. 

Cranson: Yeah, how did the association come to be? I guess, how, how old is it? First of all, because obviously there was discussion of automated vehicles before it became something that was talked about at the Center for Automotive Research and the annual Management Briefing seminar in Traverse City every year, where a lot of people like yourself. A lot of smart minded technology people come from around the world really to talk about these kinds of issues. But even before then, before it was really on the radar of a lot of policymakers, it was being discussed in some circles. I think, you know the film Minority Report featured a version of what would be automated vehicles. So just can you talk about the history and how we got here.

Farrah: Yeah, the history of our organization really began in in 2016, when a handful of companies that were fairly early days in the autonomous vehicle industry got together and started thinking about what kind of a policy landscape we really needed to set up to make sure that the United States is the global leader when it comes to autonomous vehicles. And that cadre of AV companies grew overtime in February of last year we rebranded as the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, and I came aboard to lead you out the organization in October. And so, we've grown our ranks significantly and what's really important about the AVIA is that we represent all vehicle modes. So, we represent passenger cars that are doing this autonomously, AV trucks, shuttles, 0 occupancy delivery vehicles. And so, we want to make sure that we are seen as the leader on advocating for policy. Again, that sets the United States up to be the global leader on this transformational technological development. 

Cranson: So it seems that, you know, as I've mentioned to you before we started recording that some of the pushback and some of the skepticism is from people who think that, you know, he or she is a good driver and that there's no way that the technology could possibly a better driver. We know that, you know, you don't need a lot of studies to know anecdotally that computers are not subject to road rage, that they don't drink, they don't fall asleep. Is that to you the biggest driver of this? I mean based on what I've read, I think that that obviously is very important to you. Would you say that that's the biggest motivation to embrace this technology?

Farrah: There a lot of benefits that we can get into that autonomous vehicles are going to bring. But I can tell you that from talking to people in our industry, they are very mission driven on the safety question. And I think what's really fascinating about this industry is they look out at the status quo that we have right now in terms of roadway deaths and completely reject that. Say that there's got to be a better way that we can find in the future. You have 43,000 people that died last year on America's roads, 1,100 individuals in Michigan alone. And what we know from the federal government statistics is that human behavior is overwhelmingly the cause of those crashes. You mentioned things like texting while driving. You have road rage incidents, you have drunk driving, other types of impaired driving, you have distracted driving, and all of these things come together and make our roads far too dangerous. And so, what the autonomous vehicle industry is really fundamentally trying to do is to remove the number one cause of fatalities on our streets. And so that's something that makes the work very exciting. But beyond that there are also other exciting items that are worth flagging.  I think the first is around mobility and you think about individuals out there and I have a friend of mine who unfortunately she's blind and she needs to be able to get assistance to move around and get her job, to go to the grocery store and you think about how autonomous vehicles are going to fundamentally change the lives of people that are visually impaired and in need of that assistance or individuals who are getting older and no longer can drive on their own. And then another area that's worth flagging also is around supply chain challenges. And I think we've all been negatively impacted by a lot of the supply chain issues that have gone on. And we need to address this because the reality is that America's supply chains are, are very complicated and I think we see the negative impact that has on small businesses, ranchers and farmers and you look at something like autonomous trucking that can make long haul trucking much more efficient and do so significantly safer. And so that's what we're all about, that's what our members are trying to push forward for and we're obviously very passionate about all those things. 

Cranson: Yeah, so talk a little bit about that when it comes to commercial hauling and trucking because you know, there's always concerns about anything. We can talk a little more about artificial intelligence later, but about, you know, things that take jobs and people bring that up sometimes. We've done some experiments working with TARDEC and other organizations that's a military organization, but others in terms of platooning here in Michigan and it seems like so many ads that you hear are for drivers. So, I don't know how to reconcile the fear that I hear from some people about how this is going to take away drivers’ jobs and it seems like there's not enough drivers anyway.  

Farrah: I think Jeff that you, you hit on a really important item which is, you know first in our country we have a truck driver shortage of about 80,000 truck drivers, which is set to double by 2031. So, I completely understand when people, especially truck drivers, are concerned about what the impact of autonomous trucks might be on their industry. And what we've tried to say is that we don't see autonomous trucking as taking away truck driver jobs. We see this as augmenting this and that the truck driver job is likely to change in some ways going forward. But I think it's important to acknowledge that we have such a deficit when it comes to truck driver jobs that we need to dig ourselves out of that hole. We need to do it very quickly because again it's very negatively affecting the supply chain, I think the second and closely related point is that we think that we can make truck drivers jobs significantly better. If you think about the job of Long-Haul Trucker, this is something that is incredibly grueling, it takes you away from your family and your community for days at a time. You're oftentimes sleeping in the birth of a truck, and this is something that the turnover rate is very, very high in long haul trucking because this is a job that people can't sustain over the long run. And what we're trying to do is think about kind of a transfer hub model where you have long haul trucking that ends up being done autonomously between major cities and in areas across the United States. But what that does is it creates a lot more opportunities locally around these terminals because we still need human drivers to move a lot of those goods from terminals on the periphery of the city into the backs of local grocery stores and hardware stores and whatnot. What that means is you're opening new jobs for these long-haul truckers in their own communities so they can be part of the daily life, they can stay close to their family. And so, this is a conversation that we're trying to get out there and how because I think a lot of times, and unfortunately this is something that's become far too political. You have people that that have this this kind of reflexive concern about what automation might mean for them. But we think there's a win, win situation here. 

Cranson: Yeah. And I think that we've seen some real positive results from some of the pilots and testing that MDOT has participated with some private partners, and it does hold a lot of promise and you're absolutely right about the efficiencies and the supply chains. I mean it affects all of our big employers in Michigan and even affects what the department does in terms of road projects. What's happened with supply chains and inflation of prices because of that. So, let's talk a little bit more about safety. I think you mentioned some of the stats and it makes people glaze over after a while. But the idea that we accept 40,000 people killed on our roads, we would never accept, you know, 400 planes with 100 passengers each going down each year. This really does hold that kind of promise, I mean and beyond what you also talked about in terms of people with disabilities, in terms of elderly people, if you've ever had that, you know, difficult conversation with a parent or grandparent about taking the keys away, imagine getting to the point where you don't have to do that anymore. But why do you think? And maybe it's just me that feels like some of the buzz. Around this stalled a little bit and maybe some of us because the pandemic which changed everything. But do you think that that alone even if you know the economic factor that you mentioned doesn't do it for people; how do you get more people to embrace this and what's the path to broader adoption? 

Farrah: Well, I think. First of all, I think you hit on a very important issue here that Secretary Buttigieg has talked about, which is the way he analogized it, is to say that you're almost like people in a war zone that have become so desensitized that somehow we believe it's acceptable that we lose 120 Americans every single day in this country. And you think about if you had a situation where an aircraft was going down every day with 120 people on it, what would happen? Congress would immediately demand that that the FAA ground all aircraft in this country. But we do that a little bit. You know, we have been happening on our roads and somehow, it's acceptable. And I think that you know that's the job of organizations like ours is to raise more public awareness about this so that people can understand that this is happening on a national level and it's something that we don't need to accept any longer. I think that in terms of trying to, you know, make people more aware of kind of what's going on, I think what we're seeing right now is more and more deployments happening in diverse areas across the country. This was something where for a dozen years these companies were testing on private roadways, somewhat on public roadways and really refining the technology and getting it to a spot where it ultimately could be serving Americans. That is now happening today and it's happening in different business models. I mentioned at the outset that you have a lot of companies in the passenger car space. Some of them are pursuing robo taxi ideas where someday you're going to get into an Uber or Lyft or some other company and you're going to be able to do this autonomously. And again, if you have mobility and accessibility challenges as we talked about before, this is going to be a game changer for you. You have other companies that are looking at things like shuttles that are operating around your universities, and you've got some in Michigan there whether your senior facilities and in places like Florida, you've got zero occupancy delivery vehicles that are delivering pizza and groceries today and in Texas and the list goes on and on. So, I think that the public consciousness about autonomous vehicles is about to uptick very significantly here in the United States. And the great news about that is that what we have found is that, as people engage with autonomous vehicles, they are a lot more interested in them and a lot more accepting and understand how safe they are. I can't tell you how many people that I know who have ridden in autonomous vehicle that were skeptics. And within a minute or two of being in the back of that that car, they realized just how conservative the ride is, how this is a safer way to do it. And then the automated driving system is making smarter decisions than any human would and so we as an industry need to get out and explain this expose more Americans to it, because this is something that is going to transform how we move about our country, and we need to make sure we've got the policy landscape to have that all happen. 

Cranson: Yeah. I wonder if people just tend to accept it when it becomes more incremental, you know, kind of the stone soup thing that you don't know of before you you're done. Actually, you know, made something and people will say, yeah, I like lane assist and I like adaptive cruise control and I certainly like auto braking. I've had that help me out more than once and all those other things and then put it all together and pretty soon you've got an automated vehicle. But if you ask them if they want an automated vehicle, they say, oh no, I'm not ready for that. I mean is that how you see acceptance happening?

Farrah: Yeah, I think there's also an element of, you know, I think the, the old adage which apparently has been incorrectly attributed to Henry Ford that if you know people would have asked what they needed around the time he was getting started they would have said they needed faster horses and you know he went out and instead built the Ford Motor Company. And so, I think it's something where you got really creative people out there that are thinking you know we're not being served right now by trying to make people safer and have more mobility by the human centric automobile that we have. Because there's so many things about the automobile that are designed the way that they are because you have humans at the helm, but you have individuals that are incredibly creative and dynamic that are realizing that we can design a different way. And so that's why you see some of these novel vehicle designs where they're reimagining what it is that transportation might look like in this country. 

Cranson: We’ll be right back. Stay tuned.  

MDOT MESSAGE: *Honk* Know Before you go, head on over to MiDrive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to 

Cranson: So, what role do you think the DOTs across the country should play in this? As you know, MDOT has been among the states that's been on the forefront obviously because of, you know, where automakers are based and because of our universities, especially University of Michigan and M City being closely tied into this kind of thing. But you know, what do you think the DOT can do? Or is there more they can do? 

Farrah: So, this is something where we really need to have leadership across the federal and the state government. We now have a situation where 23 states have proactively authorized the deployment of autonomous vehicles in their states. That's really exciting that number continues to grow. You have even more states have done it by regulation. And so, what we first of all need is real partnership at the state level to be getting out there and trying to think about how it is that we can talk to the citizenry of various States and make sure that we get folks comfortable. Also, we need to make sure that other states continue to kind of grow in that in that band of states that have authorized AVs on their roads, and you get a federal level. You also need to have that partnership extend up there. Fortunately for you all in Michigan, you've got a couple of really great leaders up on up on Capitol Hill and recently we actually gave Congresswoman Debbie Dingell our AV Champion award for a lot of her work on autonomous vehicle legislation. Senator Peters from Michigan has also been a big leader on AV legislation. And so, we need Congress to act to solve for some of the challenges that we've had. And then we also need the Department of Transportation to complete some rulemakings that would clarify some important policy issues that we want to make sure aren’t holding the industry back. 

Cranson: Yeah, I saw that honor. I think maybe on your Twitter feed with Congresswoman Dingell and that's really nice and yeah. I'm glad you mentioned Senator Peters too. He is a self-described transportation geek. He loves transportation policy. So, you've definitely got that right when it comes to him. Let's talk about AI. That's obviously very much at the forefront of people's minds these days. It's in the news one way or another every day now how do you think those discussions and the legitimate trepidation that that's stirring up factors into the development of automated vehicles. 

Farrah: You know, I think this is certainly something that we confront more and more that people are asking questions about it, and I think of this very much the same way I think about a lot of the questions around AVs. There's a very natural curiosity for people to understand how it is that AI is being used. And I think in in the situation of autonomous vehicles, we have a great story to tell because we need artificial intelligence ultimately to help to make the decisions that these vehicles are making. And so, I think we're a great example of how AI can be a force for good and ultimately make for a world that is safer and it has more accessibility and mobility and less supply chain challenges. And so, we are certainly a part of a broader conversation that is going on and you know we're not immune from a lot of the curiosities that people have about ChatGPT or Open AI or whatever it ends up being and so. We'll continue to make sure that we're being great stewards and explaining how it is that we are using this technology. And ideally people will look at this and say as they kind of evaluate whether they have concerns or not that in the case of AVs this is a massive net positive that needs to be sustained. 

Cranson: So, I'm sure you're familiar with the trolley problem. And how do you think AI can be trained to deal with, you know, ethical dilemmas? 

Farrah: So, I think you know in the case of autonomous vehicles what they are trained to do is to be model drivers. And I think a lot of times people set up these scenarios that are, you know very interesting from an academic perspective about false choices that the AI needs to ultimately make, and I think in the situation of autonomous vehicles, I think a lot of these problems are, you know, a little bit of kind of people's imagination run amok. I think the reality is, is that what the autonomous vehicles are doing is making far superior decisions to human beings. And I think that when you get into an autonomous vehicle, one of the first things that you realize is that it has massively more visibility into its landscape than a human being ever could. It is seeing over and through bushes. It is seeing 360 degrees around it at cars coming on to its on ramp. It is seeing other cars that are engaging in behavior that is reckless and trying to avoid that. It is seeing vehicles that might be you're coming from an unprotected turn into their direction and whatnot. The list goes on and on because so much thought has gone into this and what the cars are being trained to do is to react to all those surroundings and to do so impressively. So, I think the last thing I'll mention on that is that what's also incredible about autonomous vehicles is that; imagine a scenario where you've got an intersection near your home that is very dangerous, and you might go and tell your family. You might tell your neighbors, you might tell your friends, hey, watch out for that intersection down the street. That's really dangerous and we should all be more careful because bad things have tended to happen there. But autonomous vehicles have a much better way of doing this, which is that when they learn about a situation like I just described, they then send that information to the entire fleet. So, you can imagine a situation where you have thousands of vehicles someday that are all learning from all the things that all the other vehicles got to learn, even if those vehicles have never been to that intersection and so, that's what you get at scale from autonomous vehicles and ultimately why it is they're going to make us all much safer. 

Cranson: Well, I think you make a really good point about them knowing what's coming at them. As you know the pandemic traffic plummeted yet, crashes and crash deaths especially instead went the other way, Michigan is one of those states. And it's because people were, you know, speeding, driving like crazy. Really, some people quit wearing seat belts for reasons nobody can explain. I personally think it ties into the mask mandate somehow and just people's decision that, you know, I'm not going to let anybody tell me what to do. But wrong way crashes have been on the rise too. There's been a spate of those on Michigan freeways just recently and you know, this has to be, you know, those kinds of crashes and just run off the road crashes have to be the top sorts of categories that automated vehicles would solve, I would hope.

Farrah:  I think they absolutely would. And I think that throughput for all the things that you just mentioned Jeff is that we are currently subjected to human behavior and people making decisions that that are incorrect, that are unsafe. And we don't need to tolerate that anymore because technology has gotten us to a spot where we now have vehicles that are not subjected to those human frailties. And what's really exciting is that for a lot of our members that have been driving now autonomously for in some cases more than more than 1,000,000 miles, we are starting to actually get data that goes beyond just the reality that our vehicles don't suffer from a lot of those human frailties, but we actually see the data now showing that autonomous vehicles are far more safe than human drivers. You might be familiar with a member of ours called CRUISE and CRUISE recently passed it it's million-mile mark and it and it put out an analysis of what a lot of the learnings were, and they found that they had 54% fewer collisions overall, but here's the real kicker, 92% fewer collisions as the primary contributor. So, think about that for a moment. You have an overall reduction despite the fact that you have human drivers still engaging in dangerous behavior. So, they could still go and hit an autonomous vehicle if the human is engaging in that behavior. But in the case of the AV being the primary contributor, a 92% drop in those collisions. So, it's a massive downtick and a lot of those collisions would have been things that have resulted in fatalities, and you know we don't have to, we don't have to have that any longer. 

Cranson: No, that's really well put and you know, it's understandable that whenever there's a wrong way crash, for instance, you know people in the community and reporters come to the local street department or the County Road agency or the DOT and say, you know, what are you going to do about this? And it's like how much can you really do to human proof the system. Humans make mistakes and the way to human proof the system seems to be automated vehicles. So, I think the way you said that is, really good. Is there anything else you want to add about this, and you're work and what's going on? Obviously, this is going to be an ongoing conversation. 

Farrah: Jeff the final thing I would just note is that that there's a lot of urgency to the work that we had AVIA doing especially with policymakers whether the State level with the DOT or at the federal level the urgency attached that is really on a couple of things. The first is that we are not the only country that is pursuing autonomous vehicles and we want to make sure that our country is the global leader in this regard. And the second area is that these companies are at the moment in their technological journey where deployments are starting to happen, commercialization is starting to happen. We need to make sure that we have a policy landscape that allows them to go and do that because these companies cannot sustain themselves without growing and continuing to move forward in terms of commercialization. And so now is the time that needs to happen. This is something where again we need partnerships across all levels of government because we think that we are an answer for a lot of the troubles that folks at the state, local and federal level have. And so, we're very passionate about our work and really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about it today.

Cranson: No thank you. I really appreciate it. Once again that was Jeff Farrah who's the Executive Director of AVIA, Jeff, thanks. And we'll talk again soon. 

Farrah: Thank you. 

Cranson: Tune in next week when we'll follow up on this important theme of traffic safety with Jake Nelson, who is AAA's Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research. I’d like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple Podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talented people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball who proofs the content, Courtney Bates who posts the podcast of various platforms and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.