The looming influence of connected and autonomous vehicles on transportation infrastructure was the topic of an Infrastructure Week discussion on Capitol Hill, sponsored by AASHTO and the Eno Center for Transportation.
Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidance for the deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle technologies will be issued later this year, the panel acknowledged that many state and local transportation agencies remain wary of their ability to safely integrate AVs into existing operations and maintenance programs.
Ken Leonard, director of USDOT’s ITS Joint Program Office, explained that while the NHTSA guidance will help agencies make decisions for infrastructure “they’ll have to live with for the nexxt 50 years,” successful integration of AVs will require a multidisciplinary approach, with data and spectrum considered no less important assets as roadways and bridges.
“It’s not just something that automakers or application developers will solve,” Leonard said, adding that while a measure of flexibility will be necessary to adapt these technologies to various environments, “consistency is necessary to ensure interoperability, and for the technology to evolve.”
Former NHSTA chief David Strickland, now counsel and spokesperson for the recently formed Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, agreed, noting that while automakers expect to deploy AV on roads as they are today, the operating technology will have to be virtually perfect. “If they fail, they’ll have to fail safely,” he said.
Carlos Braceras, director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said that many DOTs will have to change their cultures, embraces innovation and risk-taking despite the potential for failure. He noted that UDOTs use of then-evolving design-build project delivery to accelerate reconstruction of the I-15 corridor in the late 1990s, “led to innovations we thought we’d never try.”
The panelists also agreed that finding ways to pay for these new technologies will require a stronger case to justify the investment. Without a demonstrable productivity leap, Leonard said, “transportation agencies will only see minor gains.”
Public-private partnerships may play a greater role, according to Brian Pickerall, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton’s surface transportation consultancy He anticipates those P3 teams to have “an interesting combination of stakeholders, with different business models,” including those that are more profit-driven than other infrastructure endeavors.
“DOTs will need to get them to work together” to be successful, Pickerall said.
Similarly, transportation agencies will have to become more sophisticated in explaining benefits and operational issues to a skeptical public.
“Technology infrastructure fun to talk about,” Braceras said, “but at the end of the day, it’s bridges and pavement that we’ll be paying for.”