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American Towman Magazine Presents the Week in TowingJune 20 - June 26, 2018

Autonomous Vehicles

new b88c4By Don G. Archer

Autonomous vehicles are an emerging technology that's sure to have an enormous impact on not only the safety of the traveling public, but the towing industry as well. Google's self-driving cars have logged more than 2 million miles in the last six years. Tesla's semi-autonomous cars, Autopilot, have traveled more than 222 million miles.

Although it seems like autonomous cars will be here before you know it, there have been a few setbacks. The first-ever AV traffic fatality was last May, and Uber just suspended its autonomous tests in Arizona after an accident in March.

Technology, however, keeps marching forward.

Tesla just announced that all of their cars will be equipped with self-driving capabilities. The onboard software will be updatable just like your cellphone, so you'll always have the latest technology. Volvo is dedicated to placing a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by the end of this year; one so autonomous you could stream HDTV and watch television while the car drives. In addition, Honda just announced that it will have self-driving vehicles on the road by 2020.

Tesla claims that their technology will play a crucial role in improving safety, stating that, "full autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver."

With eight onboard cameras and 360 degrees of visibility at up to 250 meters (0.15 miles), and 12 ultrasonic sensors, a radar system with the ability to see through fog, dust, and the car in front of you—what could go wrong?

With all those moving parts? A lot.

Out of concern for the safety of the traveling public with regard to the dangers associated with AVs but with an eye on the possibilities of curtailing and maybe even eliminating traffic fatalities altogether, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. The policy details a 15-point safety assessment for manufacturers that includes:

• Data recording and sharing.
• Privacy.
• System safety.
• Vehicle cybersecurity.
• Human-machine interface.
• Crashworthiness.
• Consumer education and training.
• Registration and certification.
• Post-crash behavior.
• Federal, state and local laws.
• Ethical considerations.
• Operational design domain.
• Object and event detection and response.
• Fall back (minimal risk condition).
• Validation methods.

The assessment covers concerns such as where the vehicle is designed to operate, what happens if a sensor fails and consumer training. They're doing everything that government does to ensure the safety of the public; but they're also gumming up the works.

While the USDOT has issued a federal policy governing autonomous vehicles, they are leaving the oversight of licensing, traffic laws and enforcement to the individual states. States should maintain as much autonomy as possible; but there may be a few conflicts of interest down the road.

All city and state governments make money when drivers do dumb things. The Los Angeles Times reports that if you're caught driving under the influence in California, you can be fined more than $15,000, and, on average, cities in California annually bring in about $40 million from towing fees.

What happens when that revenue stream dries up? Will state and local governments choose revenue over safety, enacting laws that bar the use of autonomous vehicles? In response to an inevitable shortfall, will your taxes go up? Or will the need for support from law enforcement and other emergency responders diminish accordingly, allowing municipalities to make cuts?

In response to Tesla's first autonomous vehicle death, Founder Elon Musk had to brief the U.S. Senate committee that oversees auto safety issues. Musk had to defend himself against the likes of Consumer Reports and others explaining that, "the autopilot function was not enabled at the time of the crash," and that, "more than 130 million miles had been driven by their customers, resulting in one death per 130 million miles; but among all vehicles in the U.S., there is a fatality every 94 million miles."

Many believe that with time, competition and improvements, autonomous vehicles will result in fewer traffic accidents.

As a tow company owner this may seem like bad news, but there is a bright side.

With safety and an eye on remaining solvent top on the list for lawmakers, there's no doubt that there will be more government oversight. Sensors will fail and cameras will break giving reason enough to enact legislation. One possible scenario is that, when AVs have even the slightest problems, these issues will be regarded as system failures and a hazard to other motorists; requiring law enforcement to be notified and the vehicle to shut down after proceeding to the closest safe place.

The vehicle will then need to be towed and, as with any other code violation, the occupant/vehicle owner will be issued a citation.

American Towman Field Editor-Midwest Don G. Archer is also a multi-published author, educator and speaker helping others to build and start successful towing businesses around the country at Don and his wife, Brenda, formerly owned and operated Broadway Wrecker in Jefferson City, Mo. E-mail him direct at
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