Update: Are we really making progress on self-driving cars?

Wed, 2017-06-28 16:55 -- Doug Peeples

Olli, IBM's self-driving shuttle

The consensus is that we'll see autonomous vehicles (AVs) – self-driving cars, trucks, buses and shuttles – on our city streets and interstates within five years or so. Several jurisdictions are actively competing to attract manufacturers to test their vehicles in their cities because of the opportunities they see. Others are holding back because they see the possibility of making investments in infrastructure that could turn out to be unnecessary or the wrong ones. We thought you would be interested in some of the issues federal, state and local governments and regulators are confronting as they try to figure out the best route forward. — Doug Peeples


Earlier this month the city of Portland, Oregon opened the gate for car manufacturers to test their autonomous vehicle technology on city streets. Initially launched in April, the city's Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative sets out application procedures and policies.

City leaders supporting the initiative see opportunities to reduce traffic accidents, improve the quality of life for its citizens – and advantages to gaining additional recognition as a hub for developing innovative technology. They also see it as a way to monitor and control how AV technology is tested and how it can best serve the city's citizens. Several cities have adopted a similar strategy because they see the possibility of new jobs being created. And they the testing as a way to familiarize citizens with the vehicles.

And some cities and states are installing fiber-optic lines and sensors in roads capable of warning self-driving cars of accidents ahead or other information they need to operate safely. They're also adding bright road striping to ensure the computer vision-equipped AVs can see them.

Where are the roadblocks?
A USA TODAY Network survey turned up several reasons for why some states are moving ahead with infrastructure improvements while others aren't quite ready to spend what little infrastructure funding they have to accommodate AVs. It's not as if the vehicles have a bad track record. It's that they really don't have any track record yet.

One concern is there's no national policy guiding the development of AVs and their use. Federal legislation is expected to be introduced in the coming months. But there is no national policy in place to guide state and local governments now.

Another critical issue is how much do state and local jurisdictions really need to do to prepare for AVs? While the car makers are working with cities and would like to have smart road networks, they aren't counting on them. Ken Washington, VP for research and advanced engineering for Council North America Associate Partner Ford, explained his company's perspective in the USA Today survey article. While smart roads would make the cars perform better, "You can't count on that being there, which is why our technical approach is to build the capability completely on the vehicle."

Collaboration's an issue, too (and so is consistency)
There are very few instances of interstate collaboration on infrastructure for self-driving cars. Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are cooperating across state borders and some cities are too. But as mentioned earlier in our story, there is no federal policy defining how a nationwide collaboration among states and local governments should work.

So far, 12 states have laws and policies governing AV testing on public roads. California at one time wouldn't allow them, but loosened its regulations. They're considered among the most strict but car makers can apply to test their cars there. Virginia is taking the opposite approach. At this point, manufacturers don't need to ask the state for permission of any kind to test their AVs on the state's roadways.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.