August 12, 2013

Architects look to future with automated vehicles

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- If, someday in the not-too-distant-future, we are all shopping for automated-driving vehicles, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale architecture faculty member may be part of the reason why.

Shannon McDonald, an assistant professor of architectural studies, was one of the founding organizers of the Transportation Research Board’s Road Vehicle Automation Conference last year.  She was also part of organizing the second conference, held in July, at Stanford University in California.

This year’s conference attracted twice as many people as expected.  Perhaps the highly anticipated availability of the Google self-driving car attracted professionals and academics in greater numbers.  Or perhaps it is the increasing awareness that driverless cars really are on the drawing board -- and soon.  Google, a pioneer in driverless technology, used the conference to reaffirm its commitment to public Level 4 vehicles in mixed traffic by 2018.  Level 4 refers to “full self-driving automation,” according to categories established by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.

The reason an architecture professor is heavily involved in discussions of driverless vehicles is simple -- transportation links directly to architecture, with the two swapping influences throughout history, she said.

“Now that automated vehicle technology is coming into our world, it will dramatically impact how we design our buildings, cities and towns,” McDonald said.

That is why, she said, the conference is so important, and why it draws academics and professional from so many different areas.  New laws, new roads, new liabilities and risks mean academics and professionals from diverse industries and businesses such as energy and environment, insurance, public transportation, departments of transportation, cyber-security, vehicle design and even psychologists all came together to discuss the realities of implementing this new technology.

“(Automated vehicles) can provide a better quality of life for the mobility impaired, and better safety for all of us on the road,” she said.  “This conference brings together people, researchers, companies and government officials to discuss how we are moving forward -- and we are moving forward.  Nevada and California have already legalized automated vehicles; these new vehicles are on the way.”