Rapid population growth in Texas has now become the norm, even though the number of people relocating to the state is anything but normal. Ease of living and a friendly business climate are certainly a couple of the primary drivers of such growth. However, growth also brings challenges. In north Texas, and around Austin, one of those challenges is traffic congestion. But don’t despair, innovation is coming to the rescue.
In Frisco, a far north Dallas suburb of 163,000 people, a test of driverless cars is well underway. A six-month trial, begun in May, seeks to put people in automated cars, though these cars have a human operator ready to take charge if the car gets confused. Arlington has recently announced a similar, but longer, one-year trial to begin in October.
Given the results of recent polling, these are bold initiatives. Gallup reported in May that 63 percent of people surveyed were afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, with half saying they would never do so. This summer the Brookings Institution came to the same conclusion, with 60 percent saying they were “not inclined” to take a ride in a self-driving car. Seventy percent believe that sharing the roads with a self-driving care is a cause for concern. Why? Nearly 60 percent assume that self-driving cars will be less safe than human-controlled cars. But does the data backup that assumption?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 percent of car accidents are caused by human error, with the top reasons being drunk driving, distracted driving and speeding. The next largest category, vehicle failure, accounts for just 2 percent of accidents.
The Texas legislature has been less reluctant than the general public to get driverless cars on the road. Last session the legislature passed a law that affirms autonomous vehicles. Importantly, the Texas law makes clear that the technology is just that, licensed software used to operate the vehicle, whereas the owner is the responsible party when it comes to compliance and safety. This makes certain that a real person is held accountable for failure.
Autonomous vehicles will also change how we think about traffic. According to a McKinsey study, commuters could gain as much as 50 minutes a day because of automated traffic flow.
These trials should demonstrate in a limited way the abilities of automated vehicles. Riders will be able to use an app to hail a ride on demand, and then travel to popular destinations along a fixed route. Technologically this is accomplished by “geo-fencing” an area for the vehicle to travel. Geo-fencing uses GPS to establish a virtual boundary, typically causing software to react when a device enters, or exits, the area.
According to the company running the trials this will be the first time in Texas that an on-demand self-driving care service is available on public roads. But industry effort and favorable laws will all be for naught if the public does not embrace autonomous vehicles. When Texans begin to experience the benefits for safety and reduced congestion, perhaps Frisco and Arlington will lead the country in this transportation revolution.