Smart cars are generally understood to be autonomous and semi-autonomous human transportation vehicles, but they can also include routine enhancements that make the vehicles safer and more connected.
What We Learned from the Dialogue
Smart cars are generally understood to be autonomous and semi-autonomous human transportation vehicles, but they can also include routine enhancements that make the vehicles safer and more connected. Some can sense their environment and navigate without human input, fulfilling the transportation capabilities of a traditional car or public transportation. They can range in capacity from the European Commission’s Intelligent Car Flagship Initiative that seeks to develop cars with autonomous cruise control, to lane departure warning systems, Project AWAKE for drowsy drivers, and the self-driving car Google is developing to navigate autonomously from start to finish on normal city streets.
Autonomous vehicles sense their surroundings with such techniques as radar, lidar, GPS and computer vision, with advanced control systems interpreting sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths as well as obstacles and relevant signage. Even semi-autonomous cars can perform tasks like changing lanes at high speeds or parallel parking on city streets without human input.
Smart cars hold interesting potential for strengthening urban resilience, in that they can also operate on sustainable fuel sources leading to positive environmental implications, expedite safe evacuations before and after emergencies, and receive messages and alerts based on risks in its surroundings. Dialogue participants also noted their ability to float in flooding disasters. Community members, who do not own or use personal vehicles, expanded the use cases to include making public buses (e.g., “matatus” in Nairobi, Kenya) smarter to increase their day-to-day safety and allow them to be utilized in a major disaster response. That said, smart car engineers have been cautious in considering their potential emergency applications given the technology is slow to develop and only just beginning to display signs of success.
Overall, smart cars did not resonate with the dialogue participants. The most significant barriers centered on cost and liability. Today’s smart cars are typically more expensive than other models in the marketplace given their enhanced features. Some community members commented that since they did not own a car, nor expected to own one soon, that the technology did not seem relevant. However, they intuitively understood the smart bus concept and were proponents of public transportation adopting many of the smart car technologies.
The next barrier will need to be resolved through policy. In many countries, drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles are held responsible if their vehicle hits another or causes another type of accident, yet responsibility for fully autonomous cars is still being debated. Policymakers have not decided if the driver, the manufacturer or the programmer will be held liable when a smart car causes injury or damage. The fear of litigation is strong enough to keep some dialogue participants from exploring smart cars.
Finally, while smart cars can navigate autonomously, they perform best when a visualization of their intended path has been programmed into the onboard computers and is still accurate when the car is sent on a mission. Participants noted that after a disaster, when the landscape changes dramatically, updated maps would need to be available immediately to effectively utilize smart cars for a response.