State Departments of Transportation, University Researchers Put Autonomous Vehicles into Action, Study Their Impact

CSG convened the Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Policy Academy June 12-14, 2017 in Detroit. A group of state policymakers from around the country attended the event. The academy featured a panel discussion highlighting the work of state departments of transportation and research universities to test autonomous and connected vehicles and predict and shape their impacts. Speakers included Nevada Department of Transportation director Rudy Malfabon, James Barna of the Ohio Department of Transportation, Virginia assistant secretary of transportation Ronique Day, and Mollie D’Agostino of the University of California-Davis.

Nevada Turns to Autonomous Vehicles to Drive Economic Development

In 2011, Nevada became the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles and establish a driver’s license endorsement for operators of autonomous vehicles. The state Department of Motor Vehicles was charged with adopting rules for license endorsement and for operation, including insurance, safety standards and testing. Although the DMV was the lead agency in the state’s early exploration of autonomous vehicle policy, state officials soon recognized the potential for autonomous vehicle testing and deployment to impact Nevada’s economy, Nevada Department of Transportation director Rudy Malfabon told policy academy attendees on June 13.

“Our governor and our state legislature have been very aggressive in trying to support diversifying Nevada’s economy,” said Malfabon, who serves as the 2017 vice chair of the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee. “We were especially hard hit being a tourism-based economy during the recession. We lost a lot of jobs, really took a while to recover. We’re back on track but we really had to diversify the economy and this is one of the areas that has been a success. … DMV took the lead initially (on autonomous vehicles). Now it’s really led a lot by the focus on economic development and the governor’s office of economic development took the lead in the legislation that was proposed this last session.”

That legislation revised requirements for the testing or operation of autonomous vehicles on state highways and authorized the use of driver-assistive truck platooning technology in the state, among other things.

Malfabon sees a variety of applications for autonomous vehicles around Nevada that can help drive its more traditional economic sectors as well. Case in point: providing greater mobility for the more than 6 million people that arrive in Las Vegas to attend conventions every year.

“There was a study done by the Regional Transportation Commission in southern Nevada that looked at the issue of connecting (Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport) with the convention centers, with the Strip—the resort corridor and downtown Las Vegas,” he said. “I think one of the largest gamechangers is going to be with that opportunity for automated vehicles to serve the airport (so that visitors) have a better customer experience.”

One of the biggest conventions on the Las Vegas calendar is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, which draws 170,000 attendees to hear about the latest offerings from tech companies and others.

“During CES, we had an autonomous shuttle going downtown for short trips (at) low speed but it was a unique experience for some of the visitors to downtown Las Vegas,” Malfabon said.

State officials are also looking at another application at a 107,000-acre industrial park in the Reno-Tahoe area, where workers need to get from a central transit hub to their individual workplaces.

“You can get the buses to a central location out there … but how do they get that last mile?” Malfabon said. “I think there’s a great opportunity for automated vehicles to be used (on) a test bed out there at that industrial center because it’s a huge amount of acreage, businesses are separated by a lot of distance so people need to get there once they get off the bus.”

Ohio Establishing Smart Corridors, Smart City

In Ohio, the Transportation Research Center is a vehicle testing facility and proving ground where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done vehicle crash testing and where investors are now building an autonomous and connected vehicle city to serve as a laboratory for these technologies. The state also plans to use the U.S. 33 corridor for open road testing. At the end of that corridor is the town of Marysville, population 20,000.

“We are going to partner with (Honda) and see if we can saturate that community 20 percent with connected vehicles,” said James Barna, chief engineer and assistant director for transportation policy at the Ohio Department of Transportation. “A lot of the workers that work for Honda manufacturing work in that town and Honda’s looking at outfitting (cars with) onboard units that talk with other vehicles and talk with the infrastructure. We are looking at a volunteer program to solicit volunteers so we can get that city up to a 20 percent saturation rate as it relates to connected vehicles. We are going to replace all the signals in that town with smart signal controllers.”

The state is also focused on establishing smart mobility corridors on Interstate 90 in northeast Ohio, Interstates 270 and 670 in the Columbus area, and on Interstate 80—the Ohio Turnpike, which Barna sees as a gem for open-road testing of autonomous and connected vehicle technologies.

But perhaps the crown jewel for Ohio in providing a platform to showcase autonomous and connected vehicle technologies is the city of Columbus itself, which last year beat out 78 other cities around the country to win the Smart Cities Challenge grant presented by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“It’s a $40 million USDOT grant to advance technology within the urban corridor,” Barna said. “But the cool thing about that grant was $40 million leveraged about $500 million from the private industries now all coming into Columbus.”

Ohio is also exploring truck platooning, Barna said. The state is expected to see a 67 percent increase in truck freight traffic by 2040.

As the state’s chief transportation engineer, Barna sees perhaps the most significant potential impact for autonomous and connected vehicle technologies in the area of highway safety.

“If you look at our trends (in crashes, serious injuries and fatalities) for a while we were trending down; I think most of the country was trending down,” he said. “But we’re starting to trend back up. 2015 was the single highest year in fatal (crashes) increase in the state of Ohio in 50 years. …This technology we talk about … this is what we think is the game changer as it relates to these numbers.”

Virginia’s Hands Off Approach

Virginia is another state moving ahead aggressively on testing of autonomous and connected vehicles in a variety of settings. They have done so without a heavy handed legislative approach, Virginia assistant secretary of transportation Ronique Day told policy academy attendees.

“Right now (Virginia’s code addressing automated vehicles is) very broad,” said Day. “As far as defining an operator and a driver and who’s in control of the car, it’s not specific and that’s been very purposeful. In Virginia, we really consider it to be our leverage by not putting any burdensome laws or regulations in place.”

In 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a proclamation affirming the Commonwealth’s support for research and development of automated technologies on Virginia roads. He signed an executive order to establish the Unmanned Systems Commission to examine the state of the industries, identify challenges, explore economic development opportunities and make recommendations to the governor. That commission has now sunset and issued a final report.

Lawmakers did approve legislation this year (SB1282) that will accelerate deployment of 5G for wireless networks to enable smart infrastructure and connected vehicles around Virginia.

In addition, Day and others have been hard at work on Virginia Automated 20xx, the commonwealth’s strategic plan for autonomous vehicles, which is expected to come out later this summer. Day said it will provide strategies to state agencies but not policy directives for the transition to autonomous vehicles.

UC-Davis Considers Impact of “Three Revolutions”

Many universities around the country are also playing an important role not only in testing autonomous and connected vehicle technologies but also in projecting their potential impacts. The University of California-Davis recently undertook a project called the 3 Revolutions Policy Initiative to examine the convergence of automated vehicles, sharing and ride pooling, and zero emission vehicles in the years ahead.

“We see those three revolutions happening and we know they’re going to have huge impacts as they happen,” said Mollie D’Agostino, outreach manager for the initiative. “They’re occurring simultaneously but not necessarily at the same rates. You see ridesharing impacting the way people get around in cities and you see automation sort of on its own. We think the most public benefits can be derived when we see these three revolutions happening concurrently. We see autonomous vehicles combined with electric vehicles and also pools.”

As part of one initiative project, researchers modeled three different scenarios to provide insights for potential policy actions: a business-as-usual scenario, a two revolutions scenario where electrification and automation take hold but not the shared-use application, and the three revolutions scenario with all three.

The modeling demonstrated the potential impact of the three revolutions scenario.

“It cut global energy use by 70 percent, cut CO2 (emissions) by 80 percent and … cut the costs on the transportation system by 40 percent,” said D’Agostino. “It also saved about $5 trillion per year in transportation costs. … That last component, that third revolution (sharing) is the key. … Reducing the number of cars that we have on the road from 2.1 billion to 0.5 billion is how we can achieve the congestion goals we have for our cities so we’re not all stuck in gridlock and we can achieve our greenhouse gas emissions goals as well.”

D’Agostino said so far states have been hesitant to enact policies that might help to ensure the three revolutions take place concurrently

“None of the (state) policies to date address emissions and maybe that’s because we’re not there yet but not a single policy—except a couple of proposed policies—addresses how automation will affect emissions,” she said. “We did see SB802 in California mandating that all autonomous vehicles be electric, all level four and five automation. That bill actually was changed and now it no longer has that mandate. It actually just calls for a task force. That may reflect where we’re at as a community in terms of arriving at how we want to encourage automation and electrification moving forward together. Maybe a mandate isn’t the right approach.”

A bill being considered in Massachusetts (H3417) would call for a similar mandate.

But D’Agostino said there are other potential policy actions on both the demand side and the supply side that state policymakers can employ. Policies on the demand side might involve strategies to make electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles more attractive to consumers with tax breaks and the like. Supply side strategies might include investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, she said.