In preparing for autonomous vehicles, agencies can make needed changes

By Chris Spahr and Chris McCahill

The potential impacts of autonomous and connected vehicles on travel behavior and transportation system design have been the focus of much discussion and speculation, including at SSTI’s recent Community of Practice meeting held in Salt Lake City. While it is still unclear what those impacts will be, the technology is advancing quickly, causing many states and transportation agencies to consider adaptations necessary to accommodate it. Four states have passed laws allowing driverless cars on public roads and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently commissioned researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to explore how those vehicles would affect agency activities. Their recommendations, while in some ways unique to the rise in the use of intelligent vehicles, point to many changes that are already needed as agencies modernize and adapt.

Autonomous vehicles are capable of sensing their environments and operating independently, while connected vehicles use wireless technology to communicate with other vehicles, devices, infrastructural components, and even people. Certain levels of automation, including safety warning systems and adaptive cruise control, are already common in new vehicles. Ann Arbor, MI, is becoming a major testing ground for connected vehicles. For their report to PennDOT, the CMU researchers assume that by 2040 all vehicles will have a level of automation that at least allows the driver to cede full control of the vehicle under certain conditions. This is more conservative than most industry predictions but it aligns well with government timelines.

CMU’s report offers various recommendations to PennDOT, ranging from highway capacity considerations to updated driver’s license training. For example, the report suggests that additional roadway capacity may become unnecessary due to the more effective use of existing capacity by intelligent vehicles. The researchers also recommend that PennDOT collaborate with private entities to enhance data-sharing capabilities in order to provide road users with important information to improve safety and mobility. Additionally, they recommend investments in signal equipment and traffic management centers as ways to transmit real-time data regarding parking availability, congestion, and weather conditions. Finally, the report recognizes that PennDOT will need to engage the trucking industry and state police to ensure new technologies are coordinated with their activities.

As with most new technologies, the ultimate impacts of autonomous and connected vehicles will be difficult to anticipate. Many factors—including legal, cultural, and technological barriers—might prevent full-scale implementation for quite some time. Fortunately, many of the steps recommended in the CMU report align with or support ongoing initiatives at DOTs. For example, the recent decline in automobile travel and related budget shortfalls nationwide suggest that a move away from major capacity expansions is already appropriate in many places. Other changes, such as improved traffic management systems and better use of real-time data, are essential for improving travel on existing infrastructure—a growing focus of agencies throughout the U.S.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI. Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.