The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Engineers Enlighten Governor’s Commission on Challenges with Autonomous Vehicles

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts

Eric Gonzales

Eric Gonzales

Shannon Roberts of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and Eric Gonzales of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department were two of the campus experts who spoke about autonomous vehicles at a May 29 “listening session” convened by the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation and held in the UMass Amherst Cape Cod Lounge at the Student Union. Roberts spoke about “Human Factor Needs in an Autonomous Vehicle World,” while Gonzales focused on “Autonomous Vehicles for Ride Sharing.”

See media coverage: Gazette, WWLP-TV 22, News Office release.

CEE’s Michael Knodler, director of the UMass Transportation Center, also contributed to the session. "We need to be embracing new technology moving forward but considering some of the challenges we face today like traffic safety," Knodler explained on TV 22. "Forty thousand people are still dying in traffic crashes, so how do we mitigate that while we continue to provide the daily needs of transportation."

Experts from UMass spelled out many of the steep hurdles that remain before autonomous vehicles are able to change people’s lives. As reporter Hannah Nelson of the Daily Hampshire Gazette summarized some of the problems expressed by local experts during the session, “The vehicles are expensive, only work under certain conditions, and there is no simple way to design a list of exceptions to deal with situations that drivers currently encounter every time they get behind the wheel.”

Because of these reasons, “a lot has to change for autonomous vehicles to really live up to their hype,” said Roberts. She added that “The Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise systems only work on highways, even though people use them in situations they should not.”

Nelson noted that Roberts’ comment can be illustrated by several high profile car crashes, such as a fatal Tesla crash in May of 2016.

Roberts also explained that autonomous vehicles are extremely expensive, as much as $50,000. Therefore, the market is currently only accessible to a certain demographic.

Nelson reported that Gonzales spoke about how transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, could be the first to employ fleets of autonomous vehicles. These companies already provide a communication platform for ride sourcing, meaning they match people looking for a ride with a driver in the area.

Gonzales explained that today, there are four times as many of these vehicles than taxis in Manhattan, and 40 percent of the time they are vacant, “cruising around, not actually providing productive mobility.”

The governor’s commission, formed in January of this year, is currently exploring how transportation will be impacted over the next two decades by anticipated changes in technology, climate, land use, demographics, and the economy. The UMass Amherst session was one of five engagements on different transportation topics being explored by the governor’s commission. Each session will have presentations by local experts related to the session topic, followed by an open comment period during which the commission will invite remarks and questions from the public on the session topic or any other topics relating to the future of transportation. (June 2018)