Since Google, Tesla, and others are closer to having road-worthy vehicles than many anticipated, the Federal Highway Administration is now fast tracking the formation of regulations for these cars. How will the introduction of self-driving cars impact the work of traffic and road engineers?
Volvo Drive Me autonomous driving car exhibited at the 2014 Salão Internacional do Automóvel São Paulo, Brazil
Source: Mariordo via Wikimedia Commons
As recent as last year, many experts anticipated that it would take at least a decade for self-driving cars to move from the testing phase to public use. When Elon Musk disclosed in a December 2015 interview that Tesla is on track to have their autonomous vehicles on showroom floors within two years, he caught many in the industry off-guard. Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox’s January 2016 directive to the Federal Highway Administration’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop and release rules pertaining to the testing and regulation of self-driving cars adds weight to the assertion that these vehicles will be on public roadways sooner than later. In addition, the latest Federal budget proposed by the Obama administration allocates almost $4 billion during the next decade for the development and testing of connected vehicle systems. What is the reasoning for the Fed’s push for self-driving cars?
The Rationale for Federal Guidance for Autonomous Vehicles
The Federal government cites safety as their primary interest in supporting the development, testing, and deployment of self-driving cars and connected transportation systems. According to the DOT, driver errors accounts for 80 percent of car accidents. Federal officials reason that if people are no longer behind the wheels of their vehicles, many of the 30,000 car crash related fatalities may be avoided.
Nissan autonomous car prototype exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show 2014 Source: Norbert Aepli, Switzerland
Another reason cited for the Federal government to propose regulations for the development and testing of autonomous cars is to provide consistency in laws. Currently, Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, D.C., along with a few other states, have enacted legislation pertaining the self-driving vehicles, which vary widely in the scope and extent to which they regulate these cars and their operation on roadways. This variation cause issues with manufacturers developing these cars since they are essentially forced to envision making models that fit with each state’s laws, which slows the development process significantly. Another way the NHSTA plans to facilitate innovation is by providing as many as 2,500 waivers for self-driving car developers who submit proposals that include safety-enhancing technology.
The Goals and Challenges of Developing Self-Driving Car Regulations
Historically, the boundaries between the Federal government and the states in making laws pertaining to vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) regulates the equipment and the safety features required in vehicles while state laws mandate how drivers operate the cars thus determining the “behavior.” Autonomous vehicles dissolve this boundary since the features built into these cars determine how they act on the road. By assuming the role of regulator and involving manufacturers in the rulemaking process, the NHSTA is winning favor with self-driving car developers with this proactive stance and the agency’s promises of flexible guidelines for autonomous vehicles.
Connected Vehicle Technology Complements the Benefits of Self-Driving Cars
Connective vehicle technology uses Dedicated Short Range Communication (DRSC), which is in the 5.9 GHz wireless spectrum, to facilitate communication between vehicles and infrastructure. The messages transmitted either vehicle to vehicle (V2V) or vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) provide information to both human drivers and self-driving vehicles to assist in avoiding collisions, to permit efficient and safe travel through intersections, as well as other driving tasks discussed in the video below.
Connected Vehicles: The Future of Transportation
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation
Examples of some of the benefits anticipated with the adoption of connected vehicle technology along with self-driving cars include:
The Transition to Autonomous Vehicles and Connected Vehicle Technology
The implementation of Connect Vehicle Technology and the widespread adoption of self-driving cars is likely to transform our nation’s city streets and highways during the 21st century in a similar manner that cars influenced 20th-century urban planning. While Google, Tesla, Ford, and other car makers are testing autonomous vehicles, the NHSTA recently announced the agency awarded $42 million in funding for pilot projects (PDF) using Connected Vehicle Technology. These initiatives include the following:
- New York City (PDF) plans to install V2V technology in approximately 10,000 cars, buses, and limousines owned by the city that travel predominately in Midtown Manhattan. In addition, city transportation officials plan to deploy V2I technology, such as adaptive traffic signals and roadside communication units, on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Furthermore, the NYC proposal also outlines the use of a smartphone app to permit vehicle to pedestrian communication as well as pedestrian to infrastructure information exchange. Some of the goals of the NYC initiative include reducing vehicle accidents, improving pedestrian safety, and decreasing traffic congestion.
- The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) plans to deploy Connected Vehicle Technology to improve mobility and improve safety in an extremely dynamic freeway corridor as well as along the streets of downtown Tampa.
- Highway officials in Wyoming (PDF) received funding to support a project using Connected Vehicle Technology along the I-80 corridor to reduce weather-related traffic problems and improve safety for those who travel this highway.
The results of these projects, along with other initiatives, will provide the basis for standards for Connected Vehicle Technology.
Autonomous Cars and Connected Vehicle Technology: Effects on Traffic Engineering and Urban Planning
According to a study published by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (PDF), urban areas with an affluent and well-educated population are going to lead other regions in the adoption of self-driving vehicles. The authors of the report reason that people with higher incomes are more likely to afford the additional $7,000 to $10,000 cost of self-driving cars. In addition, people who commute in highly congested areas have more motivation to avoid the hassle of dealing with daily traffic jams than those who drive on less traveled rural roads.
Some examples of the ways self-driving cars and Connected Vehicle technology will change traffic engineering and urban planning practice include:
- While people are likely to travel more once they experience the convenience of self-driving cars, the ease of sharing autonomous vehicles among family members will reduce car ownership by as much as 43 percent, which will ultimately decrease the number of vehicles on roadways.
- Since theoretically a self-driving car can be sent home once it drops off passengers at their destination, fewer people will need to park their cars, thus freeing land for other purposes.
- As people learn how Connected Vehicle Technology improves pedestrian safety, more people are likely to opt to walk instead of drive.
- Once there is widespread adoption of self-driving cars by the public, roads may need to have dedicated autonomous vehicle lanes.
- Traffic lanes for self-driving cars do not have to be as wide as they do for human driven cars, which means local and state officials will need to acquire less land for new road construction.
- Traffic engineers will need to consider V2V and V2I communications when designing new streets and roads or when they are planning improvements.
- Traffic patterns are likely to increase in complexity as self-driving cars and human-navigated vehicles share streets and highways.
With the changes the adoption self-driving cars and Connected Vehicle Technology will bring, traffic engineers and urban planners will face the challenge of adapting to new practices and learning how to apply new technologies.
How will self-driving cars and Connected Vehicle Technology change your work?