By Arti Loftus
Billions of dollars have gone into the development of Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology, with some manufacturers slowly introducing more sophisticated cruise control, braking and stability systems, driver alerts and other features, and others who are “going the extra mile” with full-on automation of vehicles including delivery trucks and shuttles within confined geographies (college campuses for example).
The forecasts for truly autonomous vehicles interacting on public roads and highways range greatly, and public opinion varies; while drivers understand the benefits, they are also wary of letting go of the wheel, or others letting go of the wheel. Stories in the media, including those about fatal collisions, are not helping.
There are no fully autonomous cars and trucks on public roads without at least a human overseer on board, which is prudent given the early nature of the evolution of AVs. Despite what some may perceive as constraints to innovation, an enormous amount of energy, attention and investment is underway in the United States of America, and where public agencies work with the AV “ecosystem,” we can expect to see real progress as we head into 2020 making the next decade spurred along by the roll out of 5G networks, more lit fiber and other infrastructure improvements.
We spoke with Christopher Bonanti, an expert in autonomous driving research, regulation and innovation, who served as a senior executive at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and in leadership roles at several other governmental agencies.
With a background including management, engineering and regulatory and compliance consulting, Bonanti has led significant projects in transportation, environmental planning, traffic safety and is a pioneer in moving Vehicle to Vehicle communication research. He has drafted autonomous vehicle policy and guidance for the United States and has served his country through work at the NHTSA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and as a staffer at both the U.S. Congress and Senate.
He was recently recruited to establish a Strategic Advisory Services arm of Rocket Wagon Venture Studios, based in Chicago, as VP and General Manager of the practice.
Bonanti, who is based in the Washington DC Metro area, is bringing his experience and insights to enterprises and organizations challenged with how they can create value in the IoT and Industrial IoT domains.
“Compared to other countries, the United States is taking an admirably comprehensive approach to ensuring that autonomous vehicles are safe, practical, environmentally friendly and otherwise poised to grow over the long term, which has the potential to drive economic growth while making transportation substantially better,” Bonanti said.
“We’ve been using cruise control for decades, and cars today are rich with computerized systems with basic driver functions. We’ve also learned that partial automation of a feature like automatic emergency braking has moved off the whiteboards and onto the streets, with great acceptance by consumers,” Bonanti said. “It’s been exciting to see lane keeping taking off, but despite the buzz on fully automated vehicles, using AI and other software and connectivity systems to work without human intervention, it’s going to take time to reach this milestone, but perhaps less time than some think. Drones, for example, will mature at a different pace than vehicles on busy urban streets. A fully computer-controlled Level V vehicle, ready to roll under any conditions with no steering wheel in sight is a few years away, even though testbeds are proving these vehicles can work.”
Whether using lidar projectors, machine learning, cameras, radar or ultrasonic sensors, for fully automated vehicles to work and become fail safe, contextual, dimensional, and/or real-time data-drive mapping systems must be in place. Bonanti believes we’ll continue to watch the debates on what will truly work, but says the same basic foundations apply regardless of the equipment, software or protocols.
“After so many years working in this arena,” Bonanti said, “it’s exciting to see start-ups investing and innovating in Vehicle to Everything (V2X) communications, which goes beyond Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) to vehicles to interact with static things, including traffic lights, motion detection systems, and more. There will be big winners in the V2X market, once ‘silicon economics’ kicks in and the prices for the technology required across multiple public and private projects goes way down. With enough money, humans can build practically anything – but practically speaking, nothing this expensive and unproven will scale without mass production.”
The Role of Government and the Potential of Ongoing Public-Private Partnerships
As a former member of the U.S. Senior Executive Service (SES) and the Associate Administrator for Rulemaking at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Bonanti was the senior executive responsible for developing, writing and implementing rules, regulations, and standards for all ground transportation vehicles sold within the U.S., including the auto, trucking, motor coach, and motorcycle industries.
These regulations included all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), and the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard regulations for automobiles and light trucks, as well as, fuel efficiency standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks.
Bonanti was responsible for moving the Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) communication research and agency’s regulations forward as well as co-authored the agency’s original autonomous vehicle policy and guidance for the United States. He also served as Head of the U.S. Delegation to United Nations World Forum for the Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations.
“The U.S. government is not standing still when it comes to the AV industry,” Bonanti said. “There is an enormous amount of information available on NHTSA’s website. NHTSA’s mission is safety, the reduction of lives lost on America’s highways, and the reduction of costs associated with roadway crashes through education, research and standards. While automobile manufacturers, distributers, retailers, and rental companies are excited about the commercial opportunities, NHTSA’s focus is on how advanced vehicle technologies change the way we drive to save lives and prevent injuries.”
The NHTSA supports laboratory testing, simulations, and testing on tracks before AVs can be deployed on public roads and sponsor initiatives including the ADS pilot, a preliminary step that seeks public comment on a national pilot research program to help safely test and deploy ADS-equipped vehicles.
“NHTSA’s collaboration with automotive industry leaders and their interactions with the general public is accelerating and streamlining the research and development of safety standards for advanced vehicle safety technologies in a way that could not happen without a non-commercial agency in place,” Bonanti said.
Public and Private Innovation & Collaboration
Bonanti is also a true believer in alliances and consortiums to bring people with passion and ideas together, while also ensuring non-technical issues, like privacy, data protection and security, data integrity and sharing can be hashed out collectively. This extends to privacy issues as well.
“As part of our American principles and values, protecting freedom and personal privacy is fundamental to anything we do,” Bonanti said. “It’s encouraging to see individuals and companies coming together to think through the extraordinary issues associated with connected cars, as the data that will be generated by connected moving vehicles, including contextual and location-based data, will be of great value.”
Bonanti has great respect for the non-profit Auto Alliance, which has collected pledges from 20 automakers to meet or exceed commitments contained in the Automotive Consumer Privacy Protection Principles established to protect personal information collected through in-car technologies.
“It’s important to provide consumers choices and tools to opt in or opt out of personal information and preference tracking,” Bonanti said. “This is not a black and white issue; many individuals and businesses appreciate the benefits of a high degree of personalization, where systems capture and store preferences, in order to serve up the right information and to literally guide people to the destination on the route of their choice – for example scenic and slow, vs. streamlined and fast. We need to inform people about how we are collecting data, de-identifying it and retaining it and how it will be used and shared.”
Bonanti holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University, which complements his experience in technology and engineering; he is passionate about the positive impact the AV industry can have in terms of job creation and economic development. One area where he sees big opportunities in this regard is the automation of semi-tractor-trailer trucks.
“We’ve all heard stories of drivers pushing the boundaries of hours of service limits, and the accidents, injuries and deaths this has caused,” Bonanti said. “Automated transportation in the commercial vehicle sector will drive massive competitive advantages for those fleets that can afford to invest or retrofit the technology onto their current fleet. Labor is a high cost for trucking companies, as is insurance on those drivers and fleets. Reduce costs, and shipping gets cheaper. With cheaper shipping, a gallon of milk can cost less. But the over 3 million truckers in the US will need to find new jobs, better jobs over the next decade or two.”
Bonanti believes with public and private partnership and taking this time to really think the consequences through, the U.S. can lead and grow. “Why not train drivers in technology? Why not invest more in innovation now to support those jobs? Look at TuSimple, which has over 50 trucks delivering cargo to and from loading docks in the south. Just last month, they announced an oversubscribed round of Series D investment at $215 million. With strategic investors including UPS, TuSimple achieved unicorn status with a valuation of $1 billion, and the new investment brings TuSimple’s total funding to nearly $300 million.”
Bonanti was intrigued by the Rocket Wagon Venture Studios model, given its benefit of bringing experts in to create IoT innovations, while also enabling studio members to share in equity, either as single company “captive” studios, or as vertical industry studios, with several members participating.
“There are so many challenges to be surfaced and solved,” Bonanti said in summing up. “This is why collaboration is so important, and why public and private partnerships are working. Think about it this way – airplanes have flown more safely on autopilot for decades. That would never have worked without satellites, positioning systems, and the FAA. Planes still have pilots, and many automobiles may always have drivers. But there will come a time when our roads, like our skies, will be much safer, protected from recent threats including distracted driving. This is a sea change worth fighting for, and I couldn’t be more excited to be in the center of this creative and challenging time.”