Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Greg Rucks with the Rocky Mountain Institute, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Kara  Kockelman, transportation professor at the University of Texas at Austin at a panel at SXSW Eco.

Greg Rucks with the Rocky Mountain Institute, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Kara Kockelman, transportation professor at the University of Texas at Austin at a panel at SXSW Eco.

Austin is one of the country’s leading centers for research and development of autonomous cars.

Google is already operating self-driving cars on the city’s roadways. It’s just the second location for testing the vehicles outside of Google’s Mountain View headquarters. And the head of the project, Chris Urmson, estimates autonomous vehicles will be available for the general public to ride in them within four years.

But Kara Kockelman, transportation professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been doing Department of Transportation research on autonomous vehicles and estimates it will take at least 20 years before they are widely adopted.

“Adoption is going to take a while,” Kockelman said. “Without strong incentives, we don’t see a lot of people shifting to a Level 4 (fully autonomous) vehicle for decades. Prices have to fall dramatically.”

“I am not convinced it’s going to be 20 years,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “I’d be surprised if it’s 10 years.”

Kockelman and Adler spoke on a panel at South by Southwest Eco last week moderated by Greg Rucks, principal of the mobility team with the Rocky Mountain Institute. The city is working with the institute to find solutions to its traffic problems. Last week, the city also released a mobility report to examine the city’s traffic problems and brainstorm solutions.

The benefits of autonomous cars to improve land use, alleviate traffic congestion, reduce traffic fatalities and accidents and to provide transportation to kids, older people without driver’s licenses, blind and disabled people are enormous, according to the panelists.

Autonomous cars are making a huge impact on today’s car industry, Rucks said. Today, a rare alignment has taken place between the incumbent automakers and the technology disruptors to create autonomous vehicles, he said.

Autonomous vehicles will trigger the biggest shake up in the auto industry’s history, according to CB Insights. While Google gets a lot of the attention, the research firm has identified 25 other major corporations in the driverless car space including Apple, Audi, Daimler, Delphi, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and more.

Mayor Adler has ridden in one of Google’s autonomous cars being tested in Austin and found the experience quite exciting. Kockelman has also ridden in Google’s autonomous cars and called the experience “dull.”

What attracted Google to Austin is its innovative spirit but also because no rules yet exist for autonomous cars, Adler said. Any city, county or state official could have objected to the cars being tested here and put roadblocks in Google’s way but instead they all agreed to go ahead with the pilot project, Adler said.

“This is a magical place, Austin,” Adler said. “In part because of what this city is, it is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country for the last four years, growing 30 percent faster than number two.”

But at one time, city officials decided they wanted to save the city from growth and they quit investing in infrastructure, Adler said. Today, the city has grave affordability issues that are intertwined with transportation issues, he said.

“If we are going to preserve who we are as a city, the spirit and soul that is Austin, frankly our affordability issues come down to transportation,” Adler said. “This technology, to me, represents a way out.”

Last year, Austin citizens voted 70 percent against light rail because the costs were too great, Adler said.

“We can’t build our way out of congestion,” Adler said. “We’re going to have to innovate our way out of congestion. The autonomous vehicles that are being tested in our city provide a solution.”

The use of autonomous vehicles will result in reductions of lives lost, Kockelman said. And the city will see some reduction in traffic congestion from fewer crashes, she said. Auto crashes cost every driver $1,000 a year, on average, she said.

The use of autonomous vehicles would result in crash reductions of 80 percent, Kockelman said.

“We will also be saving a lot of time,” she said.

Google prototype car on Austin roads, courtesy photo.

Google prototype car on Austin roads, courtesy photo.

But the autonomous vehicles could result in a lot of congestion from added miles travelled unless people start sharing the vehicles, Kockelman said. People could send the cars home empty after dropping them off at work and that would add to traffic on the roads, she said. Kockelman is advocating for shared autonomous vehicles that allow people to pair up with strangers going to the same location.

Another big benefit of the autonomous vehicles is greater connectivity, Kockelman said. A short-range communications band is now required of all vehicles, she said. It is considered Level 1 autonomy. That technology reports your location, speed and acceleration to vehicles within 300 feet. That will help self-driving vehicles see farther than their radar or cameras, Kockelman said.

“They will be able to anticipate issues farther ahead and they can react,” Kockelman said. “We’re going to see an evolution with some of these features and then a big leap frogging.”

While Google’s research focuses on individual cars, Adler is also excited about the opportunities for mass transit using autonomous technology. China has already rolled out the world’s first driverless bus, Adler said.

Mass transit combined with the last mile of transport with an autonomous car will do a great deal to alleviate traffic congestion in Austin, Adler said.

Autonomous cars also could reconfigure the look of Austin by getting rid of structured parking and surface parking lots, creating more opportunities in a city where property values are increasing, Adler said.