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USDOT Grants to Accelerate AV Use in Rural, Suburban Areas

Federal funding to the tune of $60 million is aimed at supporting autonomous and connected vehicle research projects across the country. The push will see the technology put to work outside of cities and test tracks.

Autonomous shuttles and other self-driving vehicle projects are moving beyond test-track environments and into more rural and suburban locations.

California's Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) is leading several projects where AVs will serve seniors, while another will provide transportation for residents with physical disabilities and serve a county hospital. A third pilot project will install connected vehicle and other infrastructure along a two-mile stretch of Interstate 680 in San Ramon.

These, and seven other AV-related projects across the country, are being funded by a $60 million U.S Department of Transportation grant to test “automated driving systems” (ADS). More than 70 projects from across the country competed for the ADS grants.

The projects in Contra Costa County, a region in the Bay Area, represent an outgrowth of AV research and development at the GoMentum Station, home to a former naval weapons station that now serves as a 21,000-acre AV testing facility. GoMentum is owned and operated by AAA of Northern California and Nevada.

The three pilots “offer an opportunity to take the technology beyond the gates of GoMentum to test the safety, performance and applicability of these solutions in communities,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. CCTA’s three pilot projects were awarded $7.5 million by USDOT, which will cover about 30 percent of the projects’ overall costs.

Other projects include a four-year plan to integrate ADS technology into rural settings in Ohio. The $7.5 million federal grant was matched by $10.3 million in funds from private and other partners. Led by DriveOhio, an initiative of the Ohio Department of Transportation, the Transportation Research Center (TRC), along with partners like Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati and Ohio University, the project will stretch across 32 counties in the state.

“The lessons we learn in Ohio can have enormous benefits for our own state and nationwide as we work to make our transportation system safer,” said Jack Marchbanks, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, in a statement.

Officials at USDOT and Ohio DoT point out that 97 percent of land in the U.S. is rural and could be the ideal setting for testing and improving AV technologies.

“Also, we see this as a way to provide transportation access to underserved populations,” said Luke Stedke, a spokesman for DriveOhio.

Researchers at Texas A&M University will also test ADS on rural roads, where high-tech highway markings and maps do not exist. Meanwhile, a project at the University of Iowa will explore how to better serve rural populations with ADS technology using a mobile device platform.

Back in California, officials plan to provide about two to six shared autonomous vehicles operating a fixed route in a gated community in Walnut Creek, serving older residents through a one-year pilot. Another project in Martinez, Calif., will introduce up to two autonomous shuttles with seating for up to five passengers and room for one to two wheelchairs. The project will run for roughly 18 months.

“The future plan is to scale the pilot to include the entire Contra Costa County region,” said Iwasaki.

The county will also lead a third project that will include automated driving systems as well as connected vehicle technologies and high-definition dynamic mapping. The infrastructure requirements for this two-mile project will reach beyond the $7.5 million grant, officials explained. Like the other two pilots, the total timeframe will be four years from planning to completion. "Building on previous autonomous vehicle testing advancements at Contra Costa Transportation Authority, these federal investments for vitally-needed data will be critical in developing strong safety performance metrics, which must be at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing and integration," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.