Thursday, February 11, 2016


Urban policy makers face a new set of questions these days. Frequent requests for drones and robocars are coming at them. This is terra incognito. They have no experience with driverless street delivery of pizza, fuel oil or people.

An official classification of levels of vehicle automation was published by NHTSA in 2013. “Level X automation” is now commonly heard in professional and commercial discussions and publications.

Do we need guideways to serve  auto-oriented districts?
Yet we lack classification of the complexity in which vehicle automation is to take place. This confuses discussions as ITS engineers deal with not just of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, but more importantly with vehicle-to-infrastructure exchanges and infrastructure-to-vehicles.

Levels of Vehicle Automation

Smart infrastructure will determine the future of roadway safety and security oversight. It will communicate with algorithms that reside in a remote center (maybe the cloud). It is helpful to create a comparable categorization of the two-dimensional, geographic areas or domains over which robocars will operate.

NHTSA’s scheme for robocars ranges from Level-0 for the millions of vehicles driven over today’s freeways, highways, arterials, local streets, alleys, parking areas, driveways and sometimes places they shouldn’t go. Level-1 brings in some driving functions, such as cruise control and park assist.  L-2 is fancier. L-3 lets the system takes control, but depends on drivers to intervene when necessary. L-4 takes it all the way up to full driverless mode.

For owners and operators of L-3 and L-4 vehicles, the domains over which they run becomes critical.

Levels of Geographic Extent: Domain

Managers of private campuses (university, medical, corporate, etc.) of not more than a few square miles don’t have to worry about state-to-state differences. In fact, they probably have pretty full control over their own property. A fleet of robocars that goes no faster than 20 mph will do just fine. There is no need to put them out on the busy highways or public streets. They remain on campus roads, paths and parking lots. This is Level-0 of robocar domains.

How large a service area for robocars?
A municipal service may stay within its corporate boundaries overseen by one police unit and served by one DPW department. That is Level-3. Level-1 is over a small domain such as metro-feeding service limited to, say, a mile out. Level-2 is with a well-defined district. A transit authority would likely require metropolitan-scaled services: Level 4. Larger regions stretching across states are Level 5.

Clearly robocar safety and control requirements are tied to the size and complexity of the domain. Asking good questions about the service domain may be a key to finding the right answers of how to deploy and oversee them.

A Domain Classification

To repeat and further define, the categories off Robocar Context to can help advance conversations are:

                0   Secured, managed private or semi-private campuses

                1   Supervised activity centers, probably mixed land uses that rely in part on public streets

                2   Urban districts with firm boundaries (physical or by policy) with residential and/or employment populations of, say, 5000 to 50,000

                3   An entire city - central or suburban - but within the jurisdiction of a single legal entity or municipality, aka City Hall

                4   A metropolitan area with populations of, say, 0.1-10 million

                5   A very large metropolitan or inter-regional with significant long-distance trips (over ~10 miles).

In a few decades, policy makers may want to think about a sea-to-sea domain as the 6th and international as the 7th levels.

To restate visually, the array of robocars in different domains is:

Context Scale
Veh Smarts






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