Driverless vehicle is a glimpse into Atlanta’s transit future

The EasyMile driverless vehicle shows off its tracking system on a programmed demo route in Austell on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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The EasyMile driverless vehicle shows off its tracking system on a programmed demo route in Austell on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Driverless vehicles could transform your commute, create and eliminate jobs and put thorny ethical decisions — run down a pedestrian to save yourself? — in the hands of an algorithm.

And they’re coming to Atlanta in the not-too-distant future.

On Thursday, advocates for driverless vehicles showed off the technology at a performing arts center in Austell near Six Flags Over Georgia. The future appeared as a modest 12-passenger bus that ferried riders around a parking lot at 8 mph.

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Vasili Karavidas, a representative from France for EasyMile, closes the doors of the company’s driverless vehicle for a test ride in metro Atlanta on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Vasili Karavidas, a representative from France for EasyMile, closes the doors of the company’s driverless vehicle for a test ride in metro Atlanta on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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Vasili Karavidas, a representative from France for EasyMile, closes the doors of the company’s driverless vehicle for a test ride in metro Atlanta on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

But don’t be fooled. Advocates say driverless — they prefer “autonomous” — vehicles could be the most disruptive transportation innovation since Henry Ford’s assembly line made the automobile the lifeblood of the American economy.

“It will fundamentally change the way people live, work and play,” said Paul Brubaker, CEO of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation, a trade group that sponsored Thursday’s show and tell.

Just a few years ago, driverless vehicles seemed like part of some distant science-fiction future. But companies such as Google and Tesla already are testing them on the road. Ford recently announced it will sell self-driving vehicles by 2025, with autonomous taxis coming sooner.

Transportation experts and city officials already are figuring how the vehicles will fit into existing transit systems and streetscapes.

In September, Atlanta will host a driverless vehicle demonstration as part of the city's efforts to create a "smart corridor" on North Avenue from Georgia Tech to the Ponce City Market. Faye DiMassimo, general manager of the city's Renew Atlanta and TSPLOST programs, said the vehicles could reduce traffic accidents and congestion in the area.

Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, said driverless vehicles could become part of the agency’s commuter bus system. Though GRTA likely would retain its traditional fleet of coaches for commuter runs, driverless vehicles could ferry riders to their final destination once they get off a bus, he said.

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The Easy Mile driverless vehicle rolls along on its programmed demo route in Austell on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

The Easy Mile driverless vehicle rolls along on its programmed demo route in Austell on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

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The Easy Mile driverless vehicle rolls along on its programmed demo route in Austell on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

Widespread use of such vehicles could dramatically improve the speed and safety of your commute, advocates say.

Brubaker said 35,000 people die in auto accidents in the United States each year, and 94 percent of those accidents are caused by human error. Remove the human driver and you remove the error, he said.

John Orr, who tackles transportation issues for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said about 45 percent of Atlanta's famously awful traffic congestion is caused by accidents.

“This could have a very positive impact over the long term,” Orr said.

Like any disruptive technology, though, there's potential bad to go with the good. While driverless vehicles could be a boon for disabled or elderly residents who can't drive, a lot of people who drive for a living could find themselves unemployed.

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On Wednesday, Sam Schmidt received the first license restricted to an autonomous vehicle in the U.S.

Then there are those ethical dilemmas. Suppose you’re speeding along and a pedestrian walks out in front of you. You could swerve to avoid him and hit a utility pole, possibly injuring or killing yourself. Or you could plow into the pedestrian and save yourself.

If your car is controlled by a computer, that decision is out of your hands. How will it respond? Researchers are trying to answer such questions.

There are plenty of other hurdles to overcome before driverless vehicles hit the road en masse. Regulators must ensure the vehicles are safe. New laws must sort out issues such as who gets blamed when autonomous vehicles are involved in accidents. And the public will have to be convinced they’re safe and dependable.

Xavier Salort, senior sales manager for EasyMile, the company that makes the vehicle demonstrated Thursday, believes those hurdles can be overcome.

“The bottom line is, if it’s safe, cheap and people can rely on it, people don’t care (whether it has a driver),” Salort said.

And he said it might not be a bad thing to take those ethical dilemmas out of the hands of people.

“When it comes to a drunk driver, you know what decision he’s going to make,” Salort said.