FutureStructure

Will U.S. 83 Become the First Driverless Highway?

In one of the longest North/South highways in the country, some are suggesting that an underused section in North Dakota be open for testing autonomous vehicles.

by Victoria Lusk, American News, Aberdeen, S.D. / April 4, 2016
Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 – Autonomous driving in long-distance truck operations with the "Highway Pilot." Mercedes Benz

(TNS) -- ‘Look ma, no hands!” could soon take on new meaning.

Those who thought it was cool to pedal a bicycle without their hands on the handlebars have nothing on driving a car without ... well, driving a car.

Doing so might not be as far in the future as some think.

North Dakota native Marlo Anderson and the Central North Trade Corridor Association are working on a plan that would create a highway for driverless vehicles. Anderson, known by some as the “Guru of Geek,” is the host of the talk show “The Tech Ranch.” He has a love of technology that’s tied to the prospect of driverless vehicles.

Anderson and a small team of others have been working since 2014 on a project they call the Autonomous Friendly Corridor. And actually, it already exists.

Kind of, anyhow.

The corridor would be the 1,885-mile-long U.S. Highway 83, which Anderson calls “underused.” The road runs through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. It crosses the northern border into Manitoba and touches the southern tip of the country, ending at Mexico.

In northern South Dakota, U.S. Highway 83 runs along the Missouri River through Campbell, Walworth and Potter counties.

Under the current plan, the autonomous highway would be the first in the U.S. to allow driverless vehicles to transport cargo and humans.

“Our areas are all kind of landlocked. Our country was founded east to west so, generally speaking, trying to go north-south is really, really difficult,” Anderson said.

While a vehicle driving itself isn’t unheard of — Google, for example, has been using autonomous cars since 2009 — a specific highway for the technology to share the road withhuman-operated vehicles is.

Government interest

The association, a volunteer organization, is not alone in its thinking.

In January, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that President Barack Obama proposed $3.9 billion over the next 10 years to develop innovations for self-driving vehicles. The proposal has not yet gone through Congress.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, spoke last month at a committee hearing about the potential benefits of driverless vehicles.

“Full, self-driving cars will be here sooner than we think,” Thune said in his opening remarks. “We are facing an opportunity to expand (vehicle technology) while also making it smarter and safer.”

The safety factor is key for Anderson and the association.

In 2014, 32,675 Americans were killed in automobile accidents, Thune said. More than 90 percent of those accidents linked to human error, including driver intoxication, distraction and choice.

Autonomous vehicles would be equipped with technology that can prevent such accidents, Anderson said.

Some vehicles already have some built-in autonomy, which started with cruise control and has since advanced to include features like parking assistance, front emergency braking, birds-eye view camera systems and radar cruise control.

Manufacturers are increasingly improving how smart vehicles are, with most using cameras and sensors that allow them to detect, for example, when something is behind it while backing up or to brake when it gets too close to another vehicle.

For now, most of the technology can be found in higher-end vehicles, Rhonda Masters, sales consultant at Harr Motors, said. But she believes that just as backup cameras have become more of a standard in recent years, so will the emerging technology.

The idea of sitting in the back seat is concerning for Masters, because even today’s more basic systems can default.

“Right now, all these things are a way for the driver to have good information, but that driver is in control,” she said.

But it doesn’t change its possibility.

“The cars coming up are definitely going to have some advanced technology in them,” she said. “Going forward, that’s the way of the future.

“Are we flying cars yet? No. But the Jetsons era is coming,” she said.

Levels of autonomy

There are five levels of autonomy, Anderson said:

  • Level one, the most basic level, encompasses features already available.
  • Level two would be an adopted cruise-control system with which a driver could take his or her hands off the steering wheel at interstate speeds.
  • Level three would be “a little more like youaren’t driving,” but a person would still have to be readily available to take over control of steering, braking and other functions.
  • Level four might mean a seat that rumbles when the driver has to regain control due to, for instance, dicey weather conditions.
  • Level five — full autonomy — is “you are in the back seat.”

“But up until that point, there is someone behind the wheel,” he said.

He believes the self-driving vehicle industry will take baby steps to get to level five, just as the association might do with its corridor.

Anderson’s ideal test run would be driving — or rather not driving — from Bismarck, N.D., to Pierre on U.S. Highway 83. He’s hopeful for a test run in 2017.

“That’s what we’re going for, but there’s a lot that has to be ironed out between now and then,” he said. “But it’s possible. The technology is there.”

Currently, only seven states have legislation regarding autonomous vehicles. North Dakota approved a measure last year allowing a study about what, if any, laws need to be changed to accommodate automated vehicles and to research how they could reduce traffic accidents and congestion and improve fuel economy.

Autonomous vehicles would obey the laws of driving, Anderson said.

“So it stops at stop signs, goes the speed limit,” he said.

While that might mean safer roads, it also means, “Americans need to be comfortable being passengers in their own vehicles,” as Thune put it.

Anderson has been a passenger in 20 or so autonomous vehicles.

“It’s like getting in the car with a new driver. It’s a little uncomfortable at first, but when you see how good they drive, you relax,” he said.

Thune was also a passenger in a driverless vehicle prior to the committee hearing. According to a news release, he has made it a priority for the committee he heads to examine ways for the U.S. to remain at the forefront of transportation technology.

“I welcome the efforts of groups and leaders that envision a role for states like South Dakota in developing autonomous vehicles, and I look forward to continuing to examine how this technology can help increase safety on our roadways. Strong state and local support for this new technology will not only help bring it to the market faster, but will likely determine where innovators and entrepreneurs test and develop their products,” Thune said in a statement to the American News.

He is continuing to review the proposed autonomous highway, according to his communications director, Ryan Wrasse.

Meanwhile, Anderson and the corridor association are working toward creating a coalition between the six states and Canada.

“It’s pretty strong now between Canada and North Dakota,” Anderson said. “This will set a footprint for the rest of the country to follow.”

©2016 the American News (Aberdeen, S.D.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.