Don't Wait to Take Steps for Automated Vehicles
The US DOT's newest policy is only the beginning
May 22, 2017

Jim Barbaresso

With the September release of the U.S. DOT Policy on Highly Automated Vehicles (HAVs), state DOTs are expected to comply with U.S. DOT requests to support uniform regulation of automated vehicles across state boundaries.

Although not binding upon states, the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy provides insight into the U.S. DOT's views on what matters it intends to regulate versus what will be left to the states. The Policy identifies state regulatory responsibilities as those issues related to licensing and registering motor vehicles in their jurisdictions, enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulations, conducting safety inspections, and regulating motor vehicle insurance and liability. Attempting to deploy autonomous vehicles (SAE Levels 3-5) without addressing these regulatory areas could create significant risks in states that have not addressed these hurdles.

The existing regulatory framework in most states related to licensing, registration and operation of motor vehicles does not contemplate HAVs. An examination of current state laws and regulations is a good first step in establishing such a framework. A few states, like Florida, Michigan and California, have demonstrated foresight and leadership in these areas, but likely fall short of meeting all of the guidelines issued by the U.S. DOT. New administrative procedures recommended in the Policy will reduce risk, but will also add to the burden of state government. A balance is needed to ensure that regulation does not hinder innovation and the advancement of these life-saving technologies.

The Policy recommends that states work together on infrastructure needs for HAVs to ensure uniformity across jurisdictions. It also recommends establishing a state-level automated safety technology committee that includes members from different departments of state government and stakeholder groups. Finally, it offers a sound approach to creating a regulatory environment for the operation of HAVs. However, it stops short of providing guidance related to planning and design of infrastructure needed to support the safe operation of HAVs.

Reading Between the Lines

All of that said, state DOTs should examine their own infrastructure and determine if it will be prepared to support HAVs in the short term. Here are a few initial considerations for establishing an environment for the safe operation of HAVs:

1. Establish an automated technology safety committee. There are some states, including Florida and Michigan, which have already taken the first steps towards establishing a committee structure and other internal groups to support automated vehicle research, development and deployment activities.

2. Plan now for infrastructure upgrades. Though the guidance does not address infrastructure, it will be fundamental to the success of HAVs. In the short term, it's necessary to look at your signals, signs and markings. Target areas where communication devices would be located (e.g., high-crash locations, heavily congested corridors). States also may need to dedicate facilities solely to HAVs.

3. Upgrade your data management capabilities or have partners in place to do so. Equip back offices to collect, store and analyze big data generated by HAVs and connected vehicles. Also build a bullpen of professionals skilled in information technology, networking and data analytics.

4. Begin pilot projects based on real needs. Do you need to reduce crash rates at intersections? Highway fatalities? Increase mobility? Move freight more efficiently? Look to address priority needs with a pilot program, and leverage that data to build new policies and regulations within your state.

5. Review existing laws and regulations in your state. Do you have legislation in place to address HAVs? Is it up to date? Do you have a permit process for testing HAVs on public roadways? Addressing the laws now will expedite a state's readiness for HAVs on public roadways.

6. Integrate Connected Vehicle technology to optimize safety benefits. While the policy recognizes the “complementary” nature of connected vehicle technology, it refrains from including it as an integral component of HAVs. For infrastructure owners and operators, connectivity with HAVs will be necessary to support emerging mobility solutions and evolving transportation operations strategies.

7. Plan for the future. HAVs will have a disruptive impact on transportation networks. It's important to look holistically at how HAVs will impact future design standards and transportation operations, across all modes of travel and to support all travel needs. Integrate HAVs into a “smart city” framework.

Disruption Creates Opportunity

As we move into a shared economy, automation promises greater opportunity for vehicle sharing. Before
you know it, cars, trucks and buses will operate 24/7/365; cities won't need as much space for parking. As a result, we can reshape our cities, making them safer, more livable, and smarter. Evolving connected and autonomous vehicles also will make travel on streets and corridors more reliable, predictable, faster and safer. The full benefits of this transformation won't be realized overnight. But DOTs can start now to incrementally create a safer world for future generations of travelers.

Jim Barbaresso is SVP and National Practice Leader, Intelligent Transportation Systems, HNTB Corporation.