Readying Infrastructure for Autonomous Vehicles
(This piece was co-written with Dr. Martin Adler an economist and co-founder-partner at Hoag+Co as well as a researcher at VU University Amsterdam).
Reducing traffic accidents and saving lives on roads is a top priority for governments everywhere. With staggering annual numbers of fatalities and injuries, 39,000 fatalities alone in the US, the proliferation of autonomous vehicles (AVs) promises to deliver substantial improvements1. Currently, traffic safety depends on factors such as an individuals’ safe-driving behavior and government actions such as speed limits and the provision of adequate infrastructure.
Just a few weeks ago, the Biden cabinet announced their 2 trillion Dollar infrastructure proposal as one of their first policy goals2. The new administration is not the first to promise a remedy to the US’s chronic shortfall in infrastructure investment in the past 30 years. Nonetheless, it is promising that the size of the new proposal matches the problem3.
Given the Democrats wish to address the climate emergency, the proposal is structured around investment goals into green energy as well as sustainability. While the auto industry is mentioned briefly, AVs and the faltering road infrastructure find no mention. However, herein lies the mistake as AVs are directly linked with achieving sustainability goals in the form of renewable energy propulsion, reduced energy consumption from technologies such as platooning and increased shared transport alternatives.
For these essential environmental benefits to take place, Self driving vehicles require adequate infrastructure. According to market research by H+C, a mobility advisory firm, 74% of consumers perceive roads as not ready for self-driving cars, and only around 11% consider the opposite to be true, see figure4. Road authorities, regulators and other experts tend to agree with this negative assessment of AVs preparedness5.
The crux is, the adoption speed of autonomous vehicles is directly linked to infrastructure readiness.With that in mind, substantially more effort is necessary to increase uptake in the coming years so as to reap the expected benefits of vehicle automation, not the least of which is reduced roadside fatalities.
Road infrastructure is already expensive, with the average Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country spending somewhere between 1-2% of GDP on construction and maintenance6. Currently built roads are meant to last for at least two decades, well into predicted high deployment rates of AVs. Hence, time is of the essence in order to avoid cost intensive aftermarket upgrades for making roads compatible with new mobility. There is one problem. As of yet, there is no consensus on what AVs readiness precisely means among experts.
There are a number of ongoing test projects worldwide. For example, Canada is evaluating turning an Ontario highway toll road into an AVs test road7. The European Union is evaluating at least a dozen projects dealing with AVs roads at the moment, from Vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) using 5G to road markings8. Asia might be considered the contemporaneous leader in these transformations as China plans to dedicate two entire lanes of a highway between Beijing to Xiong exclusively to AVs scheduled to open this Summer9. In the US, Cavnue, a subsidiary of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners and the State of Michigan are working together in a public-private partnership to test a road corridor exclusively dedicated to AVs.
How and or why should the government prepare for AVs if the general public is not themselves ready for AVs? Governments and their institutions have a strong effect on goods and services used to fulfill the needs of the people. This Political Economy skews heavily in favor of low-lying attainable initiatives that have both keen public interest and support.
Where we see little support or interest from the public and without a tremendous push from the private industry, the government has been somewhat indifferent to an investment in AVs. The U.S. government is often motivated by the most moneyed. At times, the most vocal can create a momentum for movement in policy issues especially when that will have strong repercussions benefitting society as a whole and there is a strong economic value.
Educational campaigns that enumerate the many possible improvements from urban to rural communities and everything in between will have an impact on increasing the understanding of AVs. Despite some pessimism, one should not overestimate the opportunities to enhance almost every aspect of life, including safety.
At this stage in the progression of AVs we seem to be at the crossroads of a public-private partnership. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into the industry in startups and OEMs alike. Government is being encouraged by industry lobbyists as well as safety and advocacy groups who all see the benefits from the technology. A more sustainable, safe and equitable transportation system is being promised. This seems to finally have gotten attention from the necessary stakeholder groups who will be able to thrust the promise of AVs into the forefront for almost every group needed to obtain this breakthrough in technology. Political will is just as important as public sentiment and we ultimately need both to make widespread use of AVs a reality but attention to the failing infrastructure has to be at the forefront of this work. In addition, the increasing adoption of Electric Vehicle (EV) technology will necessitate significant investments in charging infrastructure in order to support what globally is the new direction of mobility.
On top of that planification and finance requires long-term foresight and complex decision making under uncertainty over matters such as future demand for road space and the technological requirements. While the regulatory challenge is daunting, ramifications to industry providers of infrastructure, mobility and everything in between is of equal proportion, thus necessitating sharp attention to the Political Economy of AVs and EVs.
Compatibility of conventional vehicles with autonomous vehicles on roads will be a question for the foreseeable future. Once in widespread use autonomous vehicles will still share the roadways with conventional vehicle users. What remains to be seen is how we create an ecosystem of autonomous vehicles and human driven that are not centered around the privileged who can own the most expensive, latest in automobiles. The hope is that we construct in an intentional manner, a transportation network that is equitable.
A lack of federal autonomous vehicle framework means that the U.S. is currently operating in a patchwork of laws from State to State and in some instances, city to city. This does hamper the development of a nationwide autonomous vehicle transportation network as the regulatory framework is inconsistent between jurisdictions. Conversely throughout many European and Asian countries there has been more of a nationlistic approach to both AVs and EVs allowing for swifter progress in these areas.
How infrastructure is handled must be a part of the equation if the U.S. wants to be on par globally in the AVs arena. Too often city and road planners build for the constructs of today or a period in near-term and do not plan for future technology and future benefits. The paradigm shift for future AVs technology and infrastructure needs to avoid the ills from early planning in aviation. The lesson in aviation came from not creating an appropriate tax structure because they wanted to encourage innovation but in the long run they created bad policy. What would help is addressing, lanes, lighting, jobs, tax revenue and citizen perception, confidence and comfort in the technology as part of our infrastructure preparation with long-term impact as a focus.
While regulators in the U.S. may initially be reluctant to institute dedicated lanes in its infrastructure to support AVs, governments in many European and Asian countries not only promote dedicated lanes, but their citizenry overwhelmingly supports the notion. As popular as the idea is overseas, that groundswell of support can likely spread to the U.S. If that becomes the case, then political players will be hard pressed to create a quick transition to the adoption of dedicated infrastructure to new transportation technology.
The notion of widespread use of AVs is not entirely a partisan issue but more a commonsense solution. People need transportation in order to have mobility. That mobility brings them to jobs, homes, food and healthcare and vice versa. With an increase in mobility, AVs will give our citizenry increased freedom, access to healthy food, healthcare maintenance, better paying jobs and affordable homes.