Autonomous vehicles will be here soon. What about the environmental consequences?

August 2, 2021

Autonomous vehicles have a long history in Pittsburgh, starting with Carnegie Mellon University’s winning team in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Since then, several companies in the sector have built their headquarters here, continually bringing jobs, wealth and engineering prowess to the area. Pittsburgh, for its part, has welcomed the new technology, starting with Mayor Bill Peduto’s early work in allowing Uber to test its initial fleet of autonomous cars.

While a full commercial launch of the technology is still yet to come, recent announcements from two area companies indicate that momentum is building. But for all of the new convenience and efficiency these cars might offer, their environmental advantages are somewhat more nuanced than those of electric vehicles, leaving some to wonder how they will operate in a world that is de-emphasizing the trend of automobile transportation in the name of climate change.

The main environmental benefit that autonomous vehicles offer is their efficiency: “Autonomous vehicles, in general, operate more optimally,” Neil Donahue, the director of CMU’s Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research told “They’re less lead-footy.”

‘Move fast and break things’ won’t work for autonomous vehicles

July 30, 2021

Recently-proposed legislation to authorize a “Highly Automated Systems Safety Center of Excellence” intended to review the safety of automated technologies is a good idea. But other proposals would grant the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the power to initially exempt 15,000 self-driving vehicles per manufacturer from safety standards written with human drivers in mind. This would escalate to 80,000 per-manufacturer within three years. This is a bad idea.

Suppose that each of the 80,000 autonomous vehicles deployed by a given manufacturer for testing carries an average of 1.5 passengers. This means that 120,000 people are experimenting with this new technology on public roads, not counting the pedestrians, cyclists and others who unwittingly share those roads in this experiment…

So, let us fund a center tasked to develop the appropriate safety and security standards for autonomous vehicles. But let’s not put those vehicles on the road until they can meet those standards.

Electric trucks can travel (short) distances

July 30, 2021

The state of California passed the regulation in June 2020, mandating that most of the heavy-duty trucks sold by 2035 have zero emissions. The state also has an extensive voucher system to subsidize the cost of purchasing a new electric vehicle…

Other US states follow California’s initiative. In July 2020, 15 states signed new regulations requiring all new medium and heavy vehicles to have zero emissions by 2050.

Short-range electric trucks appear to be relatively close to commercial reality, but some researchers say that expanding the range of electric trucks may not be technically or economically feasible in the short term. I warn you that there is no such thing.

Venkat Viswanathan, a mechanical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, said: And as batteries get cheaper and lighter, trucks that can travel up to about 500 miles between charges look more realistic, says Viswanathan.


July 30, 2021

But there’s a divide among climate change experts about whether fortifying infrastructure against the impact of climate change detracts from the larger fight: stopping climate change.

Much of our current infrastructure is already past its prime and should be repaired so that it can withstand extreme weather, said Constantine Samaras, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation. When aging roads and bridges get washed out in a flood, rebuilding them amounts to a sort of climate tax. It’s better to upgrade things ahead of time, he said.

Even if lawmakers and the administration don’t want to admit it, much of the spending on roads and bridges and transit and waterways is a climate bill in disguise, he said. “The infrastructure we have right now was generally designed for the weather and climate of the 20th century,” Samaras said.

Self-driving project Waymo to open Pittsburgh office in Bakery Square

July 28, 2021

Waymo, the former Google self-driving car project, is opening an office in Pittsburgh.

It plans to collocate with Google’s local headquarters in Bakery Square and hire a team of about 20 workers to focus on its autonomous technology for moving people and goods. To kick off its new office, Waymo is bringing on expertise and employees from Shadyside-based RobotWits, which provides planning and decision making technologies for self-driving vehicles…

“I am absolutely thrilled that the RobotWits team will be joining Waymo,” said Mr. Likhachev. “I am equally excited about the fact that this initiates Waymo’s presence in Pittsburgh, a city of robots that has vast research and development in robotics in general and autonomous vehicles in particular and produces massive engineering talent.”

Mr. Likhachev and two other employees from RobotWits will be joining the Waymo team, Mr. Chandra said.

New algorithm may help autonomous vehicles navigate narrow, crowded streets

July 28, 2021

It is a scenario familiar to anyone who has driven down a crowded, narrow street. Parked cars line both sides, and there isn’t enough space for vehicles traveling in both directions to pass each other. One has to duck into a gap in the parked cars or slow and pull over as far as possible for the other to squeeze by.

Drivers find a way to negotiate this, but not without close calls and frustration. Programming an autonomous vehicle (AV) to do the same — without a human behind the wheel or knowledge of what the other driver might do — presented a unique challenge for researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research…

While at CMU, Killing teamed up with research scientist John Dolan and Ph.D. student Adam Villaflor to crack this problem. The team presented its research, “Learning To Robustly Negotiate Bi-Directional Lane Usage in High-Conflict Driving Scenarios,” at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

Microgrids gaining interest, Pittsburgh International Airport the latest to build one

July 28, 2021

Pittsburgh International Airport recently built its own microgrid to generate solar power and natural gas on site. Over the years, microgrids have grown more and more popular.

“Microgrids are local power grids that can disconnect from the traditional centralized grid and operate autonomously,” explains Destenie Nock, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

The airport will use the microgrid as its primary power source but remain connected to the main grid in case of emergency.

“As we see more extreme weather events with climate change and more instances of deep freezes like we saw in Texas, more businesses, companies, hospitals, airports want to make sure they all reliably have power when they need it and they’re not dependent on some power plant really far off in the distance,” she says.

Nock says microgrids make facilities like airports more resilient and protect public safety.

Why business and academia need each other for better A.I.

July 27, 2021

Greater adoption of artificial intelligence by business depends on universities doing more fundamental research with their corporate partners.

Take self-driving cars. Advances in neural networks, the software that recognizes and acts on patterns by sifting through huge quantities of data, have let companies like Google’s Waymo and General Motors’s Cruise develop autonomous vehicles that are better than a few years ago…

Still, self-driving cars are years, and possibly decades, from widespread use. The best way to accelerate the needed innovation is cooperation between academics and business, explained Martial Hebert, Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) dean of computer science.

A new metric for designing safer streets

July 26, 2021

A new study published in Accident Analysis & Prevention shows how biometric data can be used to find potentially challenging and dangerous areas of urban infrastructure before a crash occurs. Lead author Megan Ryerson led a team of researchers in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design and the School of Engineering and Applied Science in collecting and analyzing eye-tracking data from cyclists navigating Philadelphia’s streets. The team found that individual-based metrics can provide a more proactive approach for designing safer roadways for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Current federal rules for installing safe transportation interventions at an unsafe crossing—such as a crosswalk with a traffic signal—require either a minimum of 90-100 pedestrians crossing this location every hour or a minimum of five pedestrians struck by a driver at that location in one year. Ryerson says that the practice of planning safety interventions reactively with a “literal human cost,” has motivated her and her team to find more proactive safety metrics that don’t require waiting for tragic results.

Self-Driving Startup Aurora Innovation Is Going Public: Is It a Buy?

July 23, 2021

Where should you invest $1,000 right now?

Self-driving technology start-up Aurora Innovation said on July 15 that it has agreed to go public via a merger with Reinvent Technology Partners Y (NASDAQ:RTPY), a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), in a deal that values the combined company at $13 billion.

Investors who have been following the self-driving space have probably had Aurora on their radar screens for a while now. The company’s partnerships with Uber Technologies (NYSE:UBER) and heavy-truck makers Volvo AB (OTC:VLVL.Y)(OTC:VOLV.F) and PACCAR (NASDAQ:PCAR) — all of which are investing in this deal — have helped it stand out in a crowded field…

Aurora’s co-founders are self-driving heavyweights: CEO Chris Urmson was an early leader of the original Google Self-Driving Car Project, which became Waymo; chief product officer Sterling Anderson once ran Tesla’s Autopilot program; and CTO Drew Bagnell is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s vaunted Robotics Institute, where many leaders in this space were educated.

SEPTA’s cracking battery buses raise questions about the future of electric transit

July 23, 2021

It’s been nearly a year and a half since a passenger set foot inside one of SEPTA’s Proterra buses, which cost nearly a million dollars apiece when they rolled out in 2019. Most are now gathering dust in a South Philly bus depot, riven by cracked chassis and other defects. The diesel and hybrid buses that SEPTA planned to replace with the all-electric fleet remain in service, with no timeline for the e-buses to return…

Proponents, like engineering professor Jeremy J. Michalek, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Vehicle Electrification Group, said he worries incidents like the mysterious failure of SEPTA’s ballyhooed battery fleet will scare others away from zero-emission vehicles.

“I definitely worry about those kinds of things,” he said. “If we push too fast, too early, and the technology isn’t ready and people have bad experiences, they may be reluctant to try again. There’s only a few ways to move people around without emissions, and electric vehicles are one of them.”

Trucks Are Winning Automation Race

July 21, 2021

Truckers’ pay is rising as companies try to attract more drivers. And as labor costs and inflation surge, and consumers continue their pandemic e-commerce habits, technology is coming to the rescue with automated trucks.

Companies such as Aurora, Waymo, Embark, TuSimple, Plus, and Locomation are all testing autonomous trucks, and Walmart, Target, and Amazon as well as other large retailers are potential purchasers.

Some say that self-driving cars are just around the corner, but driverless trucks will probably be with us first. The advantage of autonomous technology in trucks rather than cars is that trucks travel on fixed routes, generally on major highways, rather than through city traffic. Driving for miles on a highway is easier than navigating in cities.

How Germany Hopes to Get the Edge in Driverless Technology

July 20, 2021

With its requirement that autonomous vehicles be overseen by humans, the German law reflects a realization in the industry that researchers are still years away from cars that can safely allow the driver to disengage while the car does all the work. The law also requires that autonomous vehicles operate in a defined space approved by the authorities, an acknowledgment that the technology is not advanced enough to work safely in areas where traffic is chaotic and unpredictable…

Raj Rajkumar, who leads the autonomous driving program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which has produced many of the leading scientists in the field, said the new legislation would give German companies an advantage. But he said he was concerned that the United States and Europe were both at risk of falling behind China in technology and regulations.

“There is an international arms race between the U.S., Europe and China,” said Mr. Rajkumar, who estimates that fully autonomous vehicles are still a decade away. “China is an authoritarian country. They can pass any rules they want overnight.”

Why the grid is ready for fleets of electric trucks

July 16, 2021

While short-range electric trucks seem relatively close to commercial reality, some researchers have cautioned that stretching the range of electric trucks might not be technologically or economically feasible in the short term.

“For sure you would do short haul, there’s no question about it, because the economics are in favor, everything is in favor,” says Venkat Viswanathan, a mechanical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University. And with batteries getting cheaper and lighter, trucks that can travel up to around 500 miles between charges are looking more realistic, Viswanathan says.

But batteries would need to keep getting cheaper and lighter to compete with the range of diesel trucks, which can cover more than 1,000 miles without refueling. Alternatively, fast charging might open up some of the longest routes to electric trucks eventually, although the infrastructure needed to support fast charging for even bigger batteries would require significant investment.

“A few of these trucks coming and charging would be like the entire power load of a small town,” Viswanathan adds.

City of Pittsburgh and partners launch MaaS-focused, basic mobility initiatives

July 16, 2021

The city of Pittsburgh, Pa., the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) and private company partners celebrated the launch of two innovative initiatives – MovePGH and Universal Basic Mobility – aimed at easing access to mobility options.

MovePGH utilizes 50 physical and digital “mobility hubs” where transit and shared mobility options are integrated into a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) system. Travelers can find a bus, bike, scooter, moped, car or shared ride using the Transit app or by visiting one of the mobility hubs.

The second program, Universal Basic Mobility, ensures low-income users can easily access these integrated mobility services. The Universal Basic Mobility initiative will provide up to 100 local low-income residents with monthly transit subscriptions and shared mobility services to address mobility insecurity for a period of six months…

Spin is providing funding to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and will also be working with Urban Institute to evaluate the demonstration to potentially serve as a national model.

Tech companies are using Pennsylvania roads to test self-driving vehicles. Are they following the state’s guidelines?

July 16, 2021

In 2020, eight entities were authorized to test in Pennsylvania, including Motional AD, a tech company using self-driving shuttles in Las Vegas and Aurora Innovation, a tech giant that’s partnered with Toyota and Volvo. The busiest has been Argo AI, which had its HAVs travel at least 45,000 miles on arterial roads in Alleghany and Westmoreland counties. The company has reached partnerships with Ford and Volkswagen.

NVIDIA, a international technology corporation best known for computer graphics, received authorization to test vehicles on Interstate 78 and Route 22 but did not do so, according to documents it filed with PennDOT.

All of the companies centered their work around Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon University has been researching autonomous vehicle technology since the mid 1980s. The university is among the groups authorized to perform research on public roads. Qualcomm Technologies received authorization to start testing in the greater Philadelphia area in January.

Tesla Says Autopilot Makes Its Cars Safer. Crash Victims Say It Kills.

July 12, 2021

Similar systems offered by General Motors, Ford Motor and other automakers use cameras to track a driver’s eyes and issue warnings when they look away from the road. After a few warnings, G.M.’s Super Cruise system shuts down and requires the driver to take control.

Autopilot does not track drivers’ eyes and monitors only if their hands are on the steering wheel. The system sometimes continues operating even if drivers have their hands on the steering wheel for only a few seconds at a time.

“This monitoring system is fundamentally weak because it’s easy to cheat and doesn’t monitor very consistently,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who focuses on autonomous driving technology.

Consumer Reports said in May that one of its engineers had been able to turn on Autopilot in a Tesla and slip into the back seat while the car kept going.

Smart city success through connected sensors and edge analytics

July 12, 2021

As an example, Atlanta, Georgia, has employed surveillance cameras and analytics to create a “smart corridor” for traffic on one of the main midcity routes. A specific goal of the project is to improve the quality of life in the city by reducing emissions and pollution on a route that carries almost 29,000 vehicles every day.

The system uses Citilog’s (Paris, France; analytics application installed on 84 Axis (Lund, Sweden; surveillance cameras covering 26 intersections along the 2.3-mile route. Traffic data—including vehicle counts, speed, and occupancy —is used by SURTRAC, an adaptive traffic signal control technology developed at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA, USA; that optimizes the performance of traffic signals.

In enabling real-time adjustments of traffic signals, the solution improves travel time and reduces waiting time at intersections. Over the longer term, the data recorded allow city planners to optimize traffic operations through offline analysis.

A Global Smart-City Competition Highlights China’s Rise in AI

July 7, 2021

FOUR YEARS AGO, organizers created the international AI City Challenge to spur the development of artificial intelligence for real-world scenarios like counting cars traveling through intersections or spotting accidents on freeways.

In the first years, teams representing American companies or universities took top spots in the competition. Last year, Chinese companies won three out of four competitions.

Last week, Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Baidu swept the AI City Challenge, beating competitors from nearly 40 nations…

Stan Caldwell is executive director of Mobility21, a project at Carnegie Mellon University assisting smart-city development in Pittsburgh. Caldwell laments that China invests twice as much as the US in research and development as a share of GDP, which he calls key to staying competitive in areas of emerging technology…

“We want the technologies to develop, because we want to improve safety and efficiency and sustainability. But selfishly, we also want this technology to develop here and improve our economy,” Caldwell says.

Green terminal to open at Pittsburgh International Airport

July 6, 2021

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) has announced that it will be the first airport terminal in the world powered by its own microgrid of thousands of solar panels, combined with natural gas sourced from land at the site.

A group of Pittsburgh-based tech firms alongside technology institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh will support the development of the terminal, dubbed the Terminal Modernization Program (TMP).

EPA Can Maximize Fuel Savings of Partially Automated Vehicles

July 5, 2021

To encourage automakers to design AVs that improve fuel efficiency, a good place to start is updating test protocols to detect and quantify such improvements. ACEEE’s new white paper recommends that EPA do the following:

Sort automated vehicle features into discrete groups based on capabilities.  For example, systems that work only on freeways and combine both LKA and ACC would be treated the same.

Not allow AV features primarily designed to improve safety, such as automatic emergency braking, to earn off-cycle credits.

Design test protocols for each eligible group of AV features.

Design test protocols for features that are already market available or expected to be sold within 3 years.

Award credits based on how often AV features are actually used. EPA should estimate this value and use real-world data for AV features that have already been introduced into the market.

It’s so hot in Portland that transit power cables are melting

July 2, 2021

Oregon’s Portland Streetcar was forced to suspend transit service on Sunday because the “insane, bonkers, and incredible” heat dome boiling the Pacific Northwest is apparently melting streetcar power cables.

It hit 112 degrees in Portland on Sunday and is expected to reach 114 degrees Monday, as the heatwave lingers in the region. The streetcar shutdown will continue through Monday. Climate experts are expressing alarm at the heat’s effects on infrastructure: “We have a climate crisis fueling cascading health, power, and transportation crises,” said Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s time to do something.”

Hyperdrive Daily: Lincoln Bills Its Cars as Driveway Sanctuaries

June 29, 2021

For Apple and other tech behemoths that are diving into self-driving tech or have grand plans for their own cars, the push isn’t just about breaking into a new market — it’s about defending valuable turf, Bloomberg’s Reed Stevenson and Mark Gurman write. Americans were behind the wheel for 307.8 hours in 2016, or around six hours a week, according to the latest available data from the American Automobile Association. That’s a fair bit of time not spent using iPhone apps or searching on Google.

“Even for companies like Apple and Google, this is a massive market,” said Raj Rajkumar, who leads the robotics institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “CFOs and CEOs literally drool, since first movers are likely to have a major edge. Each of these companies wants to be the predator, and not become the prey.”

Trial lawyers, unions seen hobbling U.S. in race to beat China on driverless cars

June 23, 2021

While progress stalls in Congress, China is moving forward aggressively, Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said in an interview.

“They were initially stumbling and bumbling around and not making progress. But they’ve been improving and improving. Now there’s a lot of players in the Chinese market and a lot of money,” he said.

Hanging in limbo is a bipartisan bill that would create safety regulations for driverless vehicles and allow more testing. It also would improve financial incentives for U.S. manufacturers to invest in the development of automated vehicles by increasing the number they could sell.

Each manufacturer now can sell only 2,500 driverless vehicles to companies such as the ride-hailing service Lyft.

The limited fleet size does not give companies much of a return on investment in research and development to keep up with China, Mr. Rajkumar said.

America’s Electric Vehicle Future

June 22, 2021

National Public Radio – On Point
President Biden took a spin in Ford’s new all electric F-150. American automakers say it’s not long before they’ll completely stop making cars that run on gas. Is this the turning point towards an all-electric future?

Jeremy J. Michalek, professor of mechanical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Director of CMU’s Vehicle Electrification Group…

“This is an enormous change and it’s really a revolution. I mean, if you think about it, the past century we have relied almost entirely on petroleum for moving us around, moving people around, moving goods around. And we are at the beginning of an enormous change in how we power our vehicles.

“So, yes, a decade ago, electric vehicles, what was available was so limited. And so for such specific audiences now, with the introduction of the electric F-150 as an example, there’s whole new markets that have access to use these types of vehicles.