Sunday, October 18, 2015

Self-driving Cars & Medical Emergencies

Don't hate me because I'm smarter than you. Photo courtesy of Google, Inc.

Here’s an idea for the developers of self-driving cars, such as Google/Alphabet and Tesla Motors: make them actual lifesavers. Both Google/Alphabet and Tesla are facing blowback on their efforts because of fears that their vehicles won’t perform safely, but will behave like something out of the sci-fi novel, Robopocalypse. That fear could lead to a regulatory throttling of the technology before it can even get established. It is imperative for developers to show that self-driving cars can be more than just another excuse for drivers to stop paying attention to the road. One possibility is to develop technology that allows autonomous vehicles to save lives when their drivers are incapacitated by medical emergencies.

When a driver loses consciousness, the car keeps going. Anything in its way, whether people or structures, is in trouble. These types of crashes can number approximately 25,000 per year.

Who is to blame when these incidents occur? It’s hardly the driver’s fault if their body suddenly betrays them. Nor is it the fault of the house that suddenly has a car plowing through it. But, self-driving vehicles that monitor the condition of the driver can put a stop to this sort of thing.

As the technology is still largely in the prototype stage, I will break up my suggestions into two phases: Semi-Autonomous and Full Autonomy. Some measure can be implemented immediately, while others would follow as the technology progresses.

Phase 1: Semi-Autonomous

Vehicles at this level should be able to monitor the driver’s condition via sensors, such as the heartbeat monitors found on exercise bikes at gyms, and make limited decisions on their own. Those decisions could be as simple as applying the brakes. Consider this scenario based on a real event: a driver of a sedan loses consciousness while on a busy urban street. People walking and biking are all around and suddenly vulnerable to a large, out-of-control vehicle. Through sensors inside the steering wheel and cameras focused on the driver, the sedan detects the driver losing his or her grip on the wheel and slumping. It applies the brakes immediately, then dials 911 or some other emergency number and gives its position by pulling data from the on-board sat-nav. If the sensors are robust enough, it might even give a quick diagnosis of the driver’s condition. As with all robocallers, it should add at the end, “Press 1 to repeat,” just in case the 911 operator didn’t get enough coffee that morning.

Note that this is rather like a dead-man’s switch. The car is both preventing further harm and acting as a witness to an emergency situation. It protects other road users, while calling for help. It can’t directly save the driver at this stage, though. That becomes possible at full autonomy.
"I'm sorry, Dave, but your HMO doesn't include that hospital." Photo courtesy of Emerging Technologies Blog.
Phase 2: Full Autonomy

What if the incident above took place on a rural interstate? Stopping in high-speed traffic is risky to both the sedan’s occupant and other drivers approaching from the rear. It would be better if the on-board computer was capable of recognizing the road shoulder and maneuvering onto it gradually. But what if it could do more than that? Suppose the same incident occurs on a rural interstate, but this time the sedan keeps going. It accesses the sat-nav system to locate the nearest hospital with an emergency room and plots a course for it. Simultaneously, it calls 911 to inform emergency services that it is about to deliver a patient to that hospital. It might even be able to give a reasonable diagnosis using more robust versions of the sensors mentioned previously, so that the hospital’s staff have some idea what to expect.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Once the sedan arrives at the hospital property, it will have to find the emergency room entrance. That can be difficult given the sprawling nature of some regional hospitals. Plus, as hospitals expand, they often will move that entrance. Relying on a mere map database will be useless, as the vehicle might pull up to the maternity ward entrance. This sedan is going to have to be able to read signs.
Soon, your car may be able to read road signs. Later, it may open an Amazon account and download War & Peace. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Coolcaesar.
Thankfully, hospitals are pretty standardized when it comes to emergency room directional signage: the signs all read, “EMERGENCY.” But, the signs can be in a variety of sizes and styles. The on-board systems will have to be far more advanced than they are today. If this sedan makes it to the emergency entrance, it will have to attract attention. That can be difficult in busier hospitals, but not impossible. I suggest a siren that cannot be ignored.

Some of this, particularly the latter bit, may seem pretty far-fetched. But, to any good engineer, these are merely design challenges. Hopefully, the makers of self-driving cars will take up this challenge. We need these vehicles to be more than an excuse to eat a hot dog while roaring down the New Jersey Turnpike.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Note to VDOT that One Alleged Transportation Advocacy Group Won't Like

Thanks to David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington, I was recently made aware of an effort by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA), an organization hopelessly mired in old-school transportation thinking,  to mount an email (or letter-writing, as they're VERY old-school) campaign to push the state of Virginia to cut spending on transit and nonmotorized modes, such as bikes and pedestrians. NVTA wants this money re-tasked to highway widenings.

So, I set out to write Virginia's Department of Transportation a note of my own. But as I did so, I realized that what I was writing was applicable throughout much of the U.S. Too much, really.

Most regions have organizations stuffed with wealthy, generally older, business owners and CEOs frustrated by congestion created largely via previous plans that they, themselves, advocated. Rather than read up on the field of transportation, or even notice what's going on around them, they advocate the same failed solutions they tried before.

So please read the note below and, if you like, cut and paste to suit your own needs. The only way "Dumbgrowth" organizations like NVTA will be thwarted is if those who favor "Smartgrowth" speak up. If you'd like to submit a comment to VDOT, click here.

Here's my note:

"I understand that the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance is asking its allies to push VDOT for more emphasis on reducing road congestion via widenings. As a realtor and a northern Virginia resident, I strongly DISAGREE with this approach.
One need only look at the congestion on newly-widened roads in northern Virginia to realize that our state's reliance on road widenings has utterly failed. I see the result firsthand in the staggering residential price premiums near transit stations. Nobody pays a premium to live within easy reach of a highway these days.
While that's good for me, as a realtor focused on areas close to DC- and therefore close to transit- it's bad for Virginia. Those areas without good, rail-based transit and high levels of walking and biking infrastructure are doomed. Their prices have already stagnated as Millennials stay away; soon they will drop as their neighborhoods age.
The ONLY way to stop this is via a full embrace of transit and Complete Streets by VDOT. Anything else will merely add to Virginia's legacy of transportation failure."

Wider roads worked great in Atlanta! Here's downtown at 4 PM on a Monday.
They might as well get out and start walking.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

When Politicians Can't Bring Themselves to Do the Right Thing

In my hometown, Alexandria, Virginia, the local all-Democratic city council is proposing a big cut to their already-meager budget for Complete Streets: from $900k down to almost $600k.
If we put it in tiny, tiny print, maybe nobody will complain.

Local advocates have tried being polite, calm and respectful in arguing against a cut to tht portion of the budget that provides better pedestrian and bike access. Clearly, that approach has run its course. The proposal is still going forward, if only perhaps slightly less draconian.

That means it's time to get tough. When politicians refuse to do the right thing, advocates mustn't shy away from getting both more vocal and more organized.

In the spirit of the former, I've pointed out to Council how cutting the budget that, among other things, funds curb ramps at intersections for the disabled fits a pattern of behavior. As it turns out, this Council and other local Democratic officials make use of an office with absolutely no ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access. I've personally witnessed a man in a wheelchair having to be carried down these steps. That humiliation is not something anyone with a disability should have to endure.
Remember, we're the party that advocates for the vulnerable.
Well, at least the steps have a railing.

If you're in a wheelchair, they'll be willing to carry you down like cargo.
To my knowledge, only ONE local Democratic candidate has publicly called for this condition to be remedied or have the office removed without delay. Interestingly, elections for Council, Mayor, and the 45th district Virginia Delegate seat are set for this year.

While the city's leaders have ignored their office's condition and plead poverty when funding Complete Streets, they have managed to scrounge up the millions of dollars necessary over the years to lure and accommodate large federal and quasi-federal institutions in Alexandria. These include the DOD's Washington Headquarters Service, the National Science Foundation, and potentially a new TSA headquarters.

Yet now the city argues it can't cough up a measly $300k gap to make Alexandria safe and accessible for those who:
1. Don't WANT to drive.
2. Can't AFFORD to drive.
3. Are UNABLE to drive.

Even if the proposed cuts are reduced ever so slightly, what does that say about the city's priorities? How progressive can an elected official claim to be when subsidies for development trump safety and accessibility for citizens in any way? And, of course, how can a city's leaders allow their own campaign office to send a signal of discrimination towards those with mobility impairment?

It's a sorry state of affairs, but it demonstrates the need for sustainable transportation and disability advocates to get tough. The easy stuff is all behind them. Now comes the hard part.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Will Bikes Eliminate the Need for Big-Ticket Highway & Transit Projects?

I like innovation. Creative thinking to me reflects intellectual vigor. When we become afraid of change, we age all too quickly.
Miami, a beacon of youthful vigor in a state with the opposite reputation, is the site of an idea that takes poorly-used space and makes room for one of the most sustainable transportation modes available: bikes. The proposal, which unsurprisingly comes from consultants from the Dutch Cycling Embassy, is to build a linear park and bike path under Metrorail elevated transit in the southwest corner of town. This Metrorail line already has a pockmarked, bumpy, sorry excuse for a path underneath it called the M-Path. However, like so many similar asphalt afterthoughts built by DOTs in the latter part of the 20th century, it’s hardly used. The new path, entitled the Underline, would seek to recreate the same allure and excitement that the High Line created in Manhattan in these early years of the 21st century, except the addition of a proper bike route makes it far more useful.
A usable, attractive corridor is bound to attract economic growth. Witness the sustained boom taking place in the intown areas of Atlanta, particularly near the still-unfinished Beltline. The Beltline may seem to be a bit grandiose, with its promise of light rail transit, redeveloped neighborhoods, and multiuser paths. Expensive light rail projects are getting harder to fund as infrastructure spending throughout the US withers under conservative pressure.  For example, Arlington, Virginia, surrendered to such antipathy when it chose to kill a streetcar project in a low-income corridor after strenuous objections from right-leaning county board members, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt.  Luckily for Atlanta, the economic benefits of the Beltline are already coming in with only multiuser paths in place in some areas.
That raises a rather unsettling question for transportation and city planners: is the key to neighborhood vigor and economic growth a combination of low-impact, low-cost transportation infrastructure and parks? If the High Line, Underline, and Beltline are all successful in injecting vitality into close-in neighborhoods, with the latter two offering new connectivity, should we re-task funding away from elaborate road and transit projects designed to expensively move people between outlying areas and the central cores of metropolitan areas? If a rail transit system is too much for Arlington to stomach, for instance, should the county look to a long corridor of bike paths and parks paralleling the route of the defunct streetcar as a replacement?
Some signs of a new trend in this direction are starting to appear. In the early 1990s, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) finally realized its collective dream of building an expressway through the heart of north Atlanta after years of opposition during Atlanta’s Freeway Revolt. Georgia 400 was initially built as a toll road with an expensive MARTA heavy rail line in the center. The road recently lost its tolls (cue massive backups).
In a glaring oversight, GDOT chose not to include a bike path alongside the new road, as Virginia’s DOT had done years earlier along I-66 inside the Beltway (the Custis Trail).  GDOT is now going a little way towards rectifying that error by donating right-of-way along part of GA 400 to Atlanta’s PATH organization. PATH is part of a consortium constructing a multiuser path through north Atlanta’s Buckhead community that will connect to the Atlanta Beltline. The beginnings of a citywide bike network are starting to form.
That this is occurring in Georgia is positively earthshaking. This is the same state that gives no money at all to Atlanta’s MARTA transit system. That’s not to say that the Republican governor, Nathan Deal, has turned his back on that most traditional of congestion relief measures, the widening of urban expressways. Years of repeated failures of such projects to alleviate congestion have yet to have an impact on the governor’s transportation policy. However, big changes often have small beginnings.
In this era of diminishing budgets, more regions should look to these innovative ideas from Miami and Atlanta. It’s better to build something cheap that will keep its full functionality many years after completion than waste time on projects that will never get off the ground (Arlington Streetcar) or will ultimately fail to relieve congestion (any given urban highway expansion). If the Underline and Beltline can be completed and grow in popularity, as well as economic impact, the consultants at the Dutch Cycling Embassy will get a lot busier.