Former NPR journalist turned No Parking Podcast producer, Megan Harris, joins co-host Alex Roy to talk about how COVID-19 has accelerated innovation in the self-driving space and other autonomous vehicle news you may have missed since March, plus the trends they’re watching headed into the fall.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

Hi, everyone. This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving vehicles and artificial intelligence and how technology will or won’t change our daily lives. I’m Alex Roy.

Now I usually do this with my friend and co-host roboticist Bryan Salesky. But today I’m joined by producer Megan Harris. Some say she used to work for NPR, but I respect her because she’s not afraid to cut me off.

Megan Harris

Most of the time.

Alex Roy

Do your worst. I completely trust you. Now, it’s been a long time since we were in your feeds and a lot has happened this summer, but we want to run you through some of the biggest headlines we’re watching headed into the fall.

Megan Harris

Yeah, so I’m coming at this from the world of journalism, right? So headlines and news have been my foray into autonomous vehicles and car culture.

Alex Roy

I love your patience and respect as we get into this, but the truth is almost everything you read is hyped up. 

Megan Harris 

Ground rules. Caveats. Got it. Let’s get started.

Alex Roy

MIT researchers create self-driving car that is safe as long as humans drive legally.”

Megan Harris

That’s not hard at all.

Alex Roy

Well, I mean, it’s funny because every human who’s ever driven knows that other humans often don’t drive legally and almost everyone at some point flouts the law.

Megan Harris

Yeah. They’re in a hurry. They need to get somewhere. They’re not paying attention. They’re on their phones. They’re thinking about their kids, their groceries, their bills…

Alex Roy

Everybody’s rolling 10 or 15 miles per hour over the speed limit, so.

Megan Harris

We should also clarify this was a Daily Mail headline.

Alex Roy

Yeah, I love the Daily Mail for gossip, but not for the tech coverage.

Megan Harris

Well, it also talked about an algorithm making self-driving cars “accident proof,” which is a questionable way to talk about this industry as a whole.

Alex Roy

Look, it’s like saying I could win every basketball game as long as no one else is playing. Well, of course. You have to build technology for the world as it is, not as we wish it to be, because otherwise it’ll never work. That’s just reality. So, and if you look at, I mean, almost every autonomous vehicle developer I’ve ever spoken to, they are planning for and designing for other people on the road to make mistakes. Safety isn’t just you not making mistakes. It’s anticipating what others might do and planning for it. And it’s also just a really good rule for life.

Here’s one. I love this headline. “Self-driving semi-trucks are picking up speed.”

Megan Harris

Bud-ump-cha!

Alex Roy

You almost don’t need to read these stories sometimes to know what they’re trying to get at. I think I read that there might be 7 or 8 trillion miles—that the total addressable market of autonomous miles could be up in the trillions. And so logically there will be many different types of businesses and vehicles. So I mean…

Megan Harris

This story in particular was talking about a partnership with Navistar and TuSimple, which, you know, is interesting, but there’s a lot of bigger questions about the trucking industry at large, right? Because that means highway driving, it’s long distances, it’s freight delivery. That’s going to open up a lot of possibility and a lot of challenge.

Alex Roy

You know, I just, I’ve read this headline so many times with so many companies that it just doesn’t get me that excited anymore.

Megan Harris

Is it that trucking doesn’t get you excited, or autonomous trucking? What is it?

Alex Roy

Anything about speed and time to market just is not interesting, because, well. There’s lots of opportunity there. But just like everything, I believe it when I see it.

Megan Harris

So something else we’ve been seeing over the summer has been quite a few studies being released, right? So we talked about COVID.

Alex Roy

Uh huh.

Megan Harris

It’s made so many changes happen so much more rapidly. A lot of places have been trying things like dedicated lanes for bicycles and others. Michigan is actually trying a dedicated road lane for an autonomous vehicle.

Alex Roy

Right. So the project is called Cavnue. It’s going to run from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Some folks we know were involved. Ford is also involved. And this is a good thing, because we’ve had HOV lanes and electric vehicle lanes in a bunch of places. And although autonomous vehicles that are properly designed have to be able to operate among human drivers, there’s no question that there are advantages to having an AV-only lane. If you don’t have random people cutting in and out of your lane and autonomous vehicles are operating only amongst each other, in theory, they could possibly operate at higher speeds more safely, and that would increase efficiency and reduce the length of our trips. So I support this for sure.

Megan Harris

It’s all good in theory, right? But is that something that’s scalable? Most cities aren’t going to be able to dedicate a lot of infrastructure to that. They’re already struggling to get bike lanes in place.

Alex Roy

If this could be made to work anywhere, then the learnings will go where they should. But I totally believe in protected bike lanes, and I can’t wait for an episode to air where we discuss them with (Nelson Nygaard’s) Emily Caster Warren.

So this headline is interesting: “How coronavirus is accelerating a future with autonomous vehicles.” We already know that it’s accelerated deliveries using small delivery robots. And we’ve also seen a crazy rapid shift from people away from mass transit, like trains and buses, because they’re nervous about coronavirus. And so people have gone back to using personal vehicles. So I’m convinced that post-vaccine, by the time autonomous vehicles for robo-taxi use—actually passenger use—are deployed, you’re going to see solutions in-vehicle for cleaning. Fleet operated, robo-taxis are going to be maintained every night and cleaned. And there’ll be as yet unseen technology to solve this. I’m not really worried about it.

Megan Harris

So as you look ahead into the fall, what kinds of trends are you following?

Alex Roy

I am hopeful that the protected bike lanes we’ve seen go up in a few cities like San Francisco… Jeffrey Tumlin was on our podcast in Season 1. He became, after we interviewed him, the head of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority and began doing the kinds of things people have talked about for years and called impossible. He’s actually doing them. Slow streets, protected bike lanes, the outdoor dining, converting parking to dining and other uses. And we’re seeing that in New York and a lot of other states.

Megan Harris

Do you think that’s sustainable as we get into colder weather months, at least in some parts of the U.S.?

Alex Roy

I think some of those things will—I don’t want to say sustainable—they will remain, because the people who have stayed in New York and stayed in San Francisco will insist upon it. You’re not going to get a street whose business has returned and whose families, you know, are walking in the street with their kids to go back to an empty street when there’s no traffic to fill it. It just doesn’t… I mean, Americans, but all people, I think, when they’ve been given something, when they exercise a freedom they like, they don’t like that (freedom) taken away. And that’s just human nature. So I think a lot of these things will stick. I’m optimistic. I was in New York last week and in a lot of ways, it was better than it’s ever been since I was a kid. And I grew up there.

Megan Harris

In terms of what?

Alex Roy

Road safety, pedestrians just walking around, noise. If you bifurcate the city into major thoroughfares and side streets, the main avenues were pretty busy. Almost as busy as they were pre-COVID. But a lot of the side streets were a lot quieter. Some of them have been shut down. And they were full of happy people. So I hope that stays. And I think it will.

Megan Harris

So obviously COVID has changed a lot over the last six months, but there’s one thing that we both keep kind of laughing about here. And that’s this idea of a race—a race to commercialize. What’s your take?

Alex Roy

I hate headlines that talk about a race to the finish line for any technology, because if you invent something, and we know from Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, the guy who builds the best thing doesn’t necessarily win anything. You’ve got to have a business. You’ve got to have the financing. You’ve got to have decent leadership. Generally the “first mover” advantage doesn’t really matter. And there isn’t just one winner.

Megan Harris

Well, we look forward to more in Season 2.

Alex Roy

More common sense lessons! Alright, that’s it for today’s episode of No Parking. Thanks, Megan. I look forward to having you back.

Megan Harris

Thank you!

Alex Roy

You keep me real and honest and have more patience for me than Bryan… OK, maybe you don’t.

Alright, let us know if you liked this conversation and if you want more news in your feed. Stay tuned for more on Tuesdays from the No Parking team. In the meantime, check out our full catalog http://noparkingpodcast.com. You can find us on Twitter @noparkingpod and me, Alex Roy, @AlexRoy144 on pretty much all platforms, but Twitter is the best. Rate and review the show on iTunes. And please recommend us to a friend. We’ll be back soon. This is the No Parking podcast.