As dozens of companies have worked to bring autonomous vehicles (AVs) to life, most of the outside focus has been directed at safety and legal concerns. While engineers are fine-tuning sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence systems to ensure vehicles properly recognize objects, brake when they are supposed to and safely deliver passengers and cargo to their proper destination, others are looking at what other benefits AVs could bring to the world.
It boils down to this question: Is there a greater societal good that can come from AVs?
Motional thinks so. The Boston-based company, which is a joint venture between Hyundai Motor Group and technology company Aptiv, is running a pilot program with Eversource, New England’s largest utility. The program is using Motional vehicles operating within Eversource’s service territory of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut to collect data and information on Eversource’s utility infrastructure and report that data back to the utility.
“We believed the sensor technology on our vehicles could serve multiple purposes, capture real-time data on energy infrastructure, and ultimately, lead to fewer outages and better service for customers,” Motional wrote in a blog posting.
A Motional spokesperson told Modern Shipper the company’s vehicles are collecting information on electric poles and wires.
“These insights power Eversource’s preventative maintenance program as well as monitor for ongoing repairs and to assess damage from severe weather events,” the spokesperson said. “Motional’s vehicles survey a critical segment of Eversource’s infrastructure and automatically transmit that information to Eversource’s database through an end-to-end data solution.”
The information, including environmental information, is gathered through the vehicles’ sensors and Motional’s software processes that information, sending relevant information on to Eversource. The spokesperson stressed that this process does not impact the vehicle’s operational capabilities in any way, and Motional does not collect personally identifiable data.
“The potential for driverless technology goes far beyond personal mobility and we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface,” the spokesperson said. “Every day our vehicles navigate roads across multiple cities and two continents as part of our road testing. With all this road data being collected, we’re evaluating all of the unique ways our vehicles could be utilized to add value to the communities we serve.”
Future use cases could identify potholes, downed trees or inoperable traffic signals, for instance, allowing cities and towns to more quickly make repairs. Potentially, owners of AVs could benefit financially from this data collection by selling information collected by their vehicles to interested third parties, although the Motional spokesperson stressed that Motional is “focused on the emerging opportunity for leveraging the data from robotaxi fleets like ours.”
It is believed this is the first use case of an AV transmitting this type of information to a utility.
“At Eversource, we’re focused every day on innovative solutions to lower costs, enhance reliability and advance clean energy for our customers and communities throughout New England,” said Jaydeep Deshpande, Eversource program manager for substation analytics. “With Motional, we have one of the leaders in the autonomous vehicle industry right in our backyard. This partnership will be focused on developing future inspection solutions by combining Motional’s state-of-the-art vehicle platform with our in-house machine learning tools. It is an important part of our efforts to help make our inspection and maintenance processes more efficient, and we look forward to continuing our work together to better serve our customers.”