Worcester Polytechnic Researchers Tackle Self-Driving Vehicles as Legislators Examine Policy

Photo by Alexius Horatius / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

By Nick Neville
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was originally published in The Telegram

WORCESTER — As lawmakers begin thinking about how to best integrate self-driving cars in the coming years, a pair of Worcester Polytechnic Institute researchers are developing the technology behind these vehicles.

Raghvendra Cowlagi, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, and Alexander Wyglinski, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, received a three-year, $425,000 grant from the National Science Foundation last April. With this award, Mr. Cowlagi and Mr. Wyglinski are creating a network of connectivity between the decision-making processes of autonomous vehicles and the wireless communications necessary to make travel safer and more reliable.

“These two worlds didn’t talk to each other until this grant,” Mr. Wyglinski said. “I think right now we’re at a point where we can’t get that much more reliable self-driving cars out until they’re able to talk with each other.”

Through 10 months of research, Mr. Cowlagi, the project’s principal investigator, said they’ve been exploring how to best meld data from the vehicle’s onboard sensors with information from other self-driving cars in the vicinity about traffic congestion, speed and destination.

“None of the onboard sensor technology is so reliable that you can claim that in any situation it’s always going to be bulletproof,” he said. “What we do need is some sort of a buffer – that if you can’t figure out the world given your own sensors, what can you do?”

They also hope to discover how the integrated system could discard irrelevant information from nearby cars so that the vehicle will focus solely on information it needs to function. Mr. Cowlagi compared this to being in a loud party environment and turning your ear to the one specific person with whom you want to converse.

There is a consensus that adoption of self-driving cars will not be universal, and human-operated vehicles will need to coexist with this new technology.

“Autonomous cars pretty much talk to themselves so it doesn’t tend to receive help from other cars,” Mr. Cowlagi said. “So, whether the other car is driven by a human or is itself autonomous, is almost irrelevant.”

In addition to thinking about how these two platforms will cooperate in a road ecosystem, legislators and transportation specialists must consider autonomy’s impact on public transportation, land use and finance.

Transportation for Massachusetts, a diverse coalition of organizations dedicated to addressing the state’s transportation needs, briefed lawmakers on Beacon Hill Thursday on this issue.

“While AVs present significant upside, there’s also a lot of risk and a lot of downside here,” Chris Dempsey, director of transportation for Massachusetts, said at the event. “If we do not change our policies, we are going to make things worse.”

Among the policy considerations that Transportation for Massachusetts recommended in its 2016 Fast Forward report include supporting pilot programs and demonstrations. Paul Matthews, executive director of the MetroWest/495 Partnership, helped write the report and believes the state’s 351 municipalities can learn a lot from self-driving testing done by Boston-based nuTonomy in the Seaport District.

Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, who serves as vice chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he would like to see Massachusetts expand testing initiatives and continue to be a “center” for the development of this technology.

“There’s work happening at WPI, there’s the testing in the Seaport, there’s the work at MIT,” he said. “You have a lot of startups in Massachusetts with robotics, with photonics that are involved with autonomous vehicle development. I’d like us to maintain that leadership.”

Mr. Lesser claimed autonomous vehicles’ impact on land use would be a “game-changer,” and that there may be no need for parking garages.

Policy professionals worry that while self-driving cars may lend themselves to more public space, they may also contribute to sprawl. This will necessitate the need for smart zoning policies, according to Transportation for Massachusetts policy director Charlie Ticotsky.

“There is a fear that we share about self-driving cars that if a longer commute becomes more appealing or rather less unappealing, that people would decide that they can move further out and maybe use up more land,” Mr. Ticotsky said.

Most experts agree that autonomous vehicles would not replace public transportation, but in order to create a complementary system, legislators must facilitate connections between public transit and shared mobility platforms.

In a November 2013 Toll of Transportation report from Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, the majority of respondents indicated that they lived within walking distance of a Worcester public transit stop, but 75 percent said they would use the service more often if its quality was improved.

Mr. Wyglinski lamented that if you live between one of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority bus routes, you’re left to walk or bike.

“The goal is to have a ride share that fills the gaps that the current public transit infrastructure cannot cope with,” he said.

While autonomous vehicles could have an economic benefit because of improved safety, time savings, increased productivity and lower fuel consumption and emissions, there could also be negative impacts. These include losses from moving violations, highway tolls and parking permit revenue, which encourages lawmakers to find alternative sources of revenue.

One bill awaiting further action in the Transportation Committee seeks to address lost gas revenue from autonomous vehicles by establishing a road usage charge. The reporting date for the legislation, which was jointly filed by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, has been extended to March 2.

Projections for the widespread adoption of self-driving cars vary, with some claiming they’ll be on Massachusetts roads within five years, but no matter when they arrive, it’s important that policymakers work hand in hand with technological innovators like Mr. Cowlagi and Mr. Wyglinski.

“I think that we’re going to see more of a long-term evolution of autonomous vehicles, rather than some of the more optimistic, short-term projections from some of the advocates,” Mr. Matthews said.

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