State DOT leaders working to keep up with AV technology

  Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Leaders from state departments of transportation across the country participated in a panel discussion about connected and automated vehicles, and the winding road to their ubiquitous adoption, at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials annual meeting in Atlanta over the weekend.

Moderator Michelle Maggiore works in transportation business development for Cisco. She facilitated the discussion between AASHTO President and Tennessee DOT Commissioner John Schroer, Michigan DOT Director Kirk Steudle and Delaware DOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan.

Maggiore focused on how state DOTs are reacting to the autonomous vehicles, as well as just how automated tomorrow’s vehicles may become.

“This isn’t the first time in our history we’ve had to work with a system that wasn’t built for the disruption upon it,” Maggiore said of the introduction of autonomous vehicles. “Today’s disruption is digital, it is causing our state DOTS to adapt.”

She asked the DOT officials if they believe the future of vehicles will be more connected, automated or shared. Maggiore’s phases of automation were inspired by a recent FHWA study, and her definitions are listed below.

More connected: Connected vehicle technology progresses rapidly to 85 percent, but autonomous vehicle technology stagnates

Somewhat automated: Autonomous vehicles are proven safe, but only in certain lanes like college campuses or first and last mile delivery. About half of all vehicles have come sort of automation.

Fully autonomous and shared: Either integrated or with competing fleets of TNC providers like Uber and Lyft, about 70 percent autonomous vehicle penetration.

Instead of taking a cut and dry approach to the questions, each DOT leader agreed that all these realities will likely come to pass at some point in the future.

“Yes, yes and yes. It’s just about timing,” Cohan said in response to Maggiore’s question.

Cohan said a special advisory council in Delaware is working to determine what to do next in response to autonomous technology, noting that the state does not quite know what to regulate yet. She said she has seen other states pass regulations, then have to go back and revisit them later. She hopes to avoid that in Delaware, while also making moves toward a more connected future.

 

“The Ubers and Lyfts didn’t pop out of nowhere, they popped out because there was a demand for their services,” Cohan said. “If they waited for us to regulate them, they still probably wouldn’t be in business. As transportation officials, we need to either be visionaries or get out of the way.”

Schroer agreed, noting that Tennessee houses three OEMs actively working to creating and deploy connected or autonomous vehicles, yet most of the state’s elected officials have little knowledge about what is going on in the industry. He said the state passed  legislation over a year ago that allows automated vehicles to operate without drivers on its roadways without “much comment or discussion whatsoever.”

The bill Schroer referred to allows autonomous vehicles to operate in Tennessee without drivers or any specific testing, as long as they are registered with the state. It also allows platooning with no restrictions, as long as TDOT is notified. Still, he said no one has registered an autonomous vehicle in the state yet.

“One of the problems we have in state governments is a lot of us are scared of making mistakes,” Schroer said. “If you make a mistake, you make a mistake, but you have to go forward. We don’t do a good job of that in our industry, especially in state governments.”

Steudle emphasized that, while taking action on autonomous vehicles is important, it is also important to separate hype from reality and plan for the most likely future.  

“There’s a lot of hype. Sometimes hype sells products, sometimes hype helps stock prices, but you have to separate hype from reality,” he said. “A recent study found that in 2040, 30 percent of vehicles will be autonomous, which means 70 percent won’t. We have to build up a system that can handle both.”

Steudle said one of the biggest issues when talking about autonomous vehicles is getting everyone on the same page. While some people are thinking about taking a slow-moving urban shuttle to lunch, others are picturing a vehicle racing down the freeway with no help from its passengers.

“You have to separate those, the outcomes are different. AVs in the wild are not going to happen for a long time,” he said. “These are coming, but not everything, everywhere, all at once.”