“A technology tsunami.”
That’s how Richard Biter, assistant secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, describes the arrival of autonomous vehicles. He’s not the only one.
“We’re realizing now that this is going faster than anyone probably would’ve expected, say six years ago,” said Travis Brouwer, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Both Florida and Oregon have moved this fall to hire specialists to guide the transition to autonomous vehicles. According to the National League of Cities, only 6 percent of city and regional transportation plans consider driver-less technology. Those that do are discovering the challenges of trying to prepare for a future full of uncertainties.
Will streets suddenly be more crowded? Will the shift to urban living reverse? Some or all parking spaces may free up. We might all gravitate toward small one-person pods, or sell our homes and live in self-driving Winnebagos. Lanes on highways could be narrowed, offering the chance to add lanes and relieve traffic.
And how much of this is just hype? Although many automakers make bold claims about the proliferation of driver-less cars by 2020, most testing programs are small and limited to hand-picked roads right now. So there’s no chance to see what things might be like when a cicada-like influx of self-driving vehicles swarms roads. Companies aren’t eager to release exhaustive details on their progress, which would help bureaucrats project the future.
“Right now we’re very much in an uncertain place,” said Peter Marx, Los Angeles’s chief technology officer. “We see an awful lot of stuff happening out there, but, frankly, I haven’t met anybody whose crystal ball works perfectly.”
The challenge for states and cities is akin to trying to dress in the dark and pick out clothes that match. And given the difficulty of getting legislation passed, the government could be stuck wearing that same outfit for years.
“We’re designing infrastructure today with life expectancies of 50, 80, even 100 years into the future,” Biter said. “Not just Florida but virtually every state needs to start taking into account what are the factors that we need to be aware of and what can we do in designing and building our infrastructure today that will be able to take full advantage of this technology.”
For now, at least having conversations is what cities and states can do as a first step.
Los Angeles announced last week that it’s forming a coalition of transportation bureaucrats to tackle the topic.
“Government is often held up as a reason why innovation doesn’t happen quickly,” Marx said. “Here you have the local agencies, the city of Los Angeles, the L.A. Metro [and the state Department of Transportation], all essentially making a statement that they are actually working together to make innovation easier.”
The group is having a kickoff meeting sometime in early 2016. One area of interest is the Los Angeles region’s traffic management system, which controls 45,000 intersections. It will probably need to adapt in some manner, at some point. The group will also have to deal with rules regulating self-driving vehicles. The California DMV is expected to release proposed rules by year’s end.
Marx also said that the possibility of welcoming public trials of self-driving vehicles in Los Angeles was on the table.
In Oregon, there’s consideration of adapting crash reports. If autonomous vehicles deliver the expected safety improvements, there will be fewer accidents, cutting out a lot of paperwork. But the state could require manufacturers of driver-less cars to provide a report each time a vehicle is in a crash, to explain crashes caused by software and sensor failures.
There’s also the consideration of specific lanes for autonomous vehicles. How many should be built, and when?
“Do we need 12-foot lanes? Can we get by with 9½- or 10-foot lanes?” said Biter, the Florida transportation official. “We can turn that four-lane express highway into a six-lane express highway with literally the same right-of-way footprint.”
Depending on how fast autonomous vehicles arrive, a highway might need only one lane for such vehicles in 2025 — or maybe multiple lanes. With the average car on U.S. roads being 12 years old, the fleet is unlikely to change over quickly. States and cities will probably face a prolonged transition period.
One thing is for certain. While self-driving software may update in mere moments — like a smartphone app — the ability to adjust on the fly is a luxury that infrastructure planners won’t have.