- - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

America’s population is growing faster than the infrastructure we routinely rely upon to meet our daily needs. The demand for roadway space in recent years has steadily outpaced the supply, and gridlock threatens both our economy and our quality of life.

On the surface, “build more roads” would appear to be the most logical answer. And while it’s true that we need an expanded system, increasing capacity represents only part of the solution. Ensuring that our transportation system works more efficiently — making it work smarter, not just harder — is more essential now than ever.

We face a daunting challenge. But there’s good news, thanks to the brightest minds in industry and at our nation’s leading research institutions, like the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Together, we’re working to realize the dream of automated travel — a world in which cars and trucks can to some extent think for themselves, drive themselves, and be conversant with signs, road lane markings, and other elements of the traveling environment.

The future (and present) we’re now building will constitute the greatest mobility advancement in modern history. The potential benefits to society are immense, but automated vehicle technology carries with it both capabilities and risks. Our success in accelerating the former and mitigating the latter will depend upon managing expectations and carefully thinking through myriad questions.

Those questions aren’t all technological in nature. The travel we’ve done on our streets and highways for a very long time has been based on the presumption of a human driver. Shifting from that reality will require a thorough re-examination of public policy related to transportation. And at the same time, it will require us to scrutinize emerging assumptions about self-driving cars.

From the beginning, for instance, the prospect of automated travel has given us great hopes for safer roadways. Those hopes now seem more realistic, in light of recent study findings showing that blind-spot warning systems and those that prevent cars from drifting into adjacent lanes can reduce crashes by at least 11 percent, and by more than 20 percent for crashes involving injuries.

At the same time, though, another study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that in using automated systems that find parking spots and park the car, drivers give more attention to the dashboard and less to vehicle surroundings. That finding suggests that technology may be changing driver behavior in ways that could compromise safety rather than improve it, so the long-term safety picture for automated travel will remain murky for a while.

The same is true for how self-driving cars may affect traffic congestion. Without extensive real-world environments in which to explore the potential impacts, we’re left to rely upon computer modeling to project them. That’s very complex, and when you factor in the whims of unpredictable human behavior, the exercise also becomes somewhat imprecise, as our own research has shown. For now, though, let’s just say that it’s too early to pin all of our gridlock relief hopes on automated cars and connected roadways.

It’s also a bit early to foresee how consumers will react. We’ve learned, for instance, that motorists in one Texas city were evenly split on the question of whether they’d ever travel in a self-driving car: Fifty percent said yes, and 50 percent said no.

And how do we fund all of this? Industry investors will pay to design and build self-driving cars, but taxpayers fund the government agencies that design and build the roads on which those cars will travel. The federal gas tax provides the basis for road funding; however, that tax isn’t indexed to inflation, which has eroded its value sharply since the levy was last raised in 1993. Factor in the growth of electric vehicles and increased fuel economy standards and it becomes apparent that the gas tax cannot keep pace with current and future transportation needs.

In a way, we’ve been here before; several decades before, in fact. In pioneering the idea and pursuing the reality of the Interstate Highway System, mobility experts of the day had much to learn along the way. And so do we.

Greg Winfree, J.D. is the Agency Director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), and a former Assistant Secretary of Transportation in the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ginger Goodin, P.E. is a Senior Research Engineer for TTI, and an expert in the field of automated and connected vehicle policy.

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