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Q&A with Lauren Isaac, Manager of Sustainable Transportation at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

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What are driverless cars? How do they work?
Driverless cars, or fully automated vehicles (AVs), are capable of sensing their environment and navigating without human input, meaning that riders can sleep, work, exercise, or even play Candy Crush on their commute. By utilizing GPS, radar and Lidar technology, driverless cars make intelligent decisions about a vehicle’s direction, speed and interaction with other road users, including cyclists and pedestrians.

When can we expect to see driverless cars on the roadway?
Believe it or not, driverless cars are here! Test cars are now on the roadways in Austin, Ann Arbor, Las Vegas, and the San Francisco Bay area. While it is likely that this new technology will be ready to use in the next 2-4 years, researchers believe that driverless vehicles will not be ubiquitous on roadways until 2025-2040. Data protection, cyber security, liability and improvements to roadway infrastructure are just some of the items that need to be addressed before the industry can move forward. Not to mention, less than half of all Americans are willing to try driverless vehicles.

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What are some advantages and disadvantages of driverless technology?
One of the largest advantages is safety. If we eliminate humans from the driving equation, we eliminate 90% of car accidents caused by human error. Your children and grandchildren could go their entire lives without seeing a car accident. However, a lot depends on how society adapts to driverless technology. If vehicles are shared, similar to mobility services like Uber and Lyft, traffic congestion would decrease, the need for parking and road capacity would decrease, emissions would decrease, and low-income individuals would have access to efficient mobility options. If drivers owned their cars, similar to today’s society, we could experience mass congestion.

Besides personal travel, what are some other uses for driverless technology?
While personal travel is huge, there are so many other applications to consider! Driverless technology has the potential to completely transform the freight industry. The opportunity to apply both connected technology (e.g., platooning) and autonomous technology (e.g., driverless) could lead to greater fuel efficiency and the ability for trucks to operate around the clock, eliminating the need for drivers to take breaks. Other interesting applications include driverless tractors for farmers, electric-powered forklifts in warehouses and the use of robots in the military.

What are some of the other topics you will cover on June 15th at the Downtown Futures Series?
Driverless cars are going to have massive implications for our society. I’ll discuss the positives and negatives and, most importantly, I will describe what we can expect to see in Chicago (or any of our cities) in the future. I’ll also talk about the importance of government setting good policy to influence these outcomes.

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About Lauren Isaac:
Lauren Isaac is serving as the Manager of Sustainable Transportation in WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. She is involved in various projects involving advanced technologies that can improve mobility in cities. Most recently, Lauren was awarded an internal fellowship where she developed a guide titled “Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies” regarding how local and regional governments respond to autonomous vehicles in the short, medium, and long-term. In addition, she maintains a blog, she has presented on this topic at over 30 industry conferences, she recently did a TEDx Talk, and she has been published in a Forbes article, amongst other publications.