Speaker Spotlight: Steve Brown | Unmanned Systems Institute

Speaker Spotlight: Steve Brown

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Chairman Steve BrownSteve BrownBoard of Commissioners
Fayette County (Ga.)

Steve Brown was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2010 and is serving his second four- year term, which will expire on December 31, 2018. He is the commissioner for District 3, representing Peachtree City.

In an effort to promote state legislation to aid and protect Georgia’s cities and their citizens, he co-founded the Metropolitan Atlanta Mayors Association, a collaborative alliance comprised of the 67 cities in the greater Metro Atlanta area. He has held numerous posts with Georgia Municipal Association and served on the Policy Cabinet of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. Mr. Brown is a leading conservative voice in metropolitan Atlanta on mass transit, traffic congestion mitigation, transportation funding as well as multi-use path infrastructure. 

USI: How did you first become interested in the growth of automated vehicles?

SB: One of my main areas of focus is transportation.  I had become discouraged at how traditional road engineering methods never really seemed to address traffic congestion issues.

After watching some of the early DARPA competitions, I began thinking that autonomous-type vehicles might resolve one of the key factors in traffic congestion: human error.  In metro Atlanta, accidents and poor driving decisions create a great deal of congestion which harms our economy and quality of life.

Autonomous vehicles along with other technological developments such as advanced cloud computing, meaning you may not have to drive to an office for a good portion of your work week, has the potential to create significant road capacity and improved flow on our highways.

USI: How have you been promoting AVs and the future of transportation in your county?

SB: My primary focus has been persuading our elected officials at the regional and state levels to overcome the psychological hurdles with accepting radical new technology for driving and encourage them to consider semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles when creating a transportation vision for the future.

Fayette County was one of the first counties in the nation to approve using local roads to further the testing of autonomous vehicles.  We are attempting to bring technology companies, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Federal transportation officials and Georgia transportation officials together, creating a laboratory for improving the technology and building a framework for regulation.

USI: For those unfamiliar with Fayette County, can you give some background on the area and its use of transit and unmanned systems?

SB: Fayette County is the southernmost county in the Atlanta Region, a close drive to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  We are an affluent community, consistently ranking high in quality of life measures, and we have a sizable number of people who work in aviation.

Many of my constituents already fly some of the most sophisticated autonomous vehicles, both military and commercial aircraft, on the planet. I am thinking that is why the response about the possibility of implementing a test vehicle program in the county has been so positive.

We have an extensive network of multi-use paths and the main form of travel on the paths is golf carts.  In fact, nearly every home in Peachtree City owns a golf cart and it is the preferred alternate form of transportation.

Dr. Ruth Conroy Dalton, while at the University College London, performed a study of the multi-use path network and found it to be an amazingly efficient method of transportation.  The network takes more automobiles off the road per capita than most bus transit systems without the hassles and at a fraction of the cost.

I find it fascinating that Ford now has a new drone-like program where they are driving golf carts on the Georgia Tech campus remotely from Silicon Valley. We also have one of the largest motion picture film studios in the world, Pinewood Studios, and they are actively involved in aerial drone use for filming.

USI: What are your goals for the future of transportation in the county? In the greater Atlanta area? In the state?

SB: We are at a point in metro Atlanta where billions of dollars of investment in transportation, in any traditional form, will really not produce any noticeable congestion relief.  My goal is for us to embrace new and different technology, creating a radically different type of transportation system and work environment.

In 1995, Vanity Fair magazine wrote that the Internet was a fad and compared it to the CB radio craze.  Obviously, it was much more. So too, I believe people are significantly underestimating the role technology will play in commuting, freight delivery and remote access to employment. I am pushing for metro Atlanta to be a forerunner and look to capture some of the early research and development gains.

USI: What are some of the biggest hurdles to integrating automated vehicles into the transportation system? Will substantial financial investment be required?

SB: Currently, from a governmental perspective, no one can get their mind around the regulatory and liability issues.  Much like the private drone market tied the FAA in knots on trying to figure out how to regulate an industry that was far ahead of oversight, our state officials and law schools are attempting to figure what the world will look like with semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

Google has done an admirable job of showing the safety and reliability of autonomous vehicles on highways.  If we can do the same on local roads while the technology progresses, the regulatory process might be easier than we expect.

The transitional phase of having a mix of traditional manned vehicles and semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles sharing the roads could be the peak of the liability concerns. It is currently difficult to determine how drivers will react to autonomous vehicles.

I believe that ultimately we will see the issue of liability radically change.  We will go from insuring driver error to product liability.

I am not worried about the financial investment.  The financial resources behind autonomous vehicle development are immense. At this point, it does not appear that our roads and highways would have to be retrofitted with special equipment to aid navigation and safety of autonomous vehicles, keeping costs down for governmental entities.

As far as the cost to the consumer, if Moore’s Law plays out, buyers at all levels of the market should be able to participate in a short period of time.

USI: When do you anticipate your community will take meaningful action on integrating this technology?

SB: Our state legislature had several rounds of hearings from a newly formed study committee on autonomous vehicles.  They are now beginning to grasp the finer points of where the technology is heading.  Once the state officials feel more comfortable, we will be able to gain their cooperation on creating the parameters for allowing a local road testing program in Fayette County.

You have to remember that many elected officials at all levels of government have limited knowledge of these technological advances.  Patience is required.

USI: What are you interested to share with the unmanned systems community at USI 2015? What are you interested in learning more about?

SB: I believe my role is to give industry officials and the academic research community an idea of what they are facing with state regulation and consumer perceptions.  I have been an avid follower of developments in autonomous technology and I am excited to see how deep-learning will propel the progress further.

USI 2015 is a key point of collaboration where government and research personnel can ask the right questions and develop strategies for moving forward.  Because of the public anxiety and the fact that human beings will be in the road vehicles, the process moving forward is going to demand some of the largest public-private partnerships we have ever seen.


Commissioner Steve Brown will be speaking on the “Policy Requirements for Integrating Autonomous Systems” panel at USI 2015, December 14-16, 2015. For more information on the event, please see our agenda or register to attend.

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