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DOT Asks Autonomous Vehicle Test Sites to 'Prove It'

The Automation Proving Ground Pilot Program will help identify and designate specific facilities as qualified proving grounds that will safely test, demonstrate and deploy automated vehicle technology.

Since his appointment, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has championed the idea that collaboration in the transportation industry will lead to optimal outcomes. Pockets of innovation throughout the country must be connected in order to maximize the potential. One of the most daunting challenges for the transit officials will be incorporating autonomous vehicle (AV) technology into our roadways.

So to kick-start a community of AV innovation, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has called for the creation of an Automation Proving Ground Pilot Program.

The program will help identify and designate specific facilities as qualified proving grounds "for the safe testing, demonstration and deployment of automated vehicle technology,” according to a post written by Foxx. This "Community of Practice," as he calls it, will be an innovative community that facilitates data sharing throughout the sites and between the sites and the federal government, and ultimately advances the technology, according to a USDOT spokesperson familiar with the program.

The pilot program is the latest step in the federal government’s commitment to creating partnerships with state and local governments that take the lead on innovation. Earlier this year, the agency held a Smart City Competition in which cities created multifaceted plans that used advanced technology transportation projects to improve their community. Columbus, Ohio, was ultimately chosen as the winner and received $50 million in federal funding

Also of paramount concern to the agency is safety, so a key requirement of becoming an official proving ground is to have a designated safety officer. This person will be responsible for the site’s safety management plan and will be required to participate in regular meetings with other site safety officers where they share insights and best practices.

As for potential proving ground candidates, the Las Vegas Innovation District has seen the application, and is exploring how the program would fit in the community.

Typical Characteristics

The application (PDF) to become a proving ground calls for sites with varied environments run by entities not limited by size. Sites that are encouraged to apply include:

  • Test tracks or testing facilities
  • Race tracks
  • Cities/urban cores
  • Highway corridors
  • Campuses (corporate or academic)
Proposals will be accepted until 11:59 pm EST on Dec. 19, 2016.

“We were very excited when we saw the solicitation go out by the USDOT," said Innovation Program Manager Joanna Wadsworth. “We definitely feel like it fits with the direction the city is headed within the smart city/connected and autonomous vehicle environment.”

Las Vegas, she said, is interested in creating an on-road testing facility. Because Nevada already distributes licenses for autonomous vehicles, the Innovation District views a proving ground on the streets of Las Vegas as the next logical step.

“We are identifying corridors we can outfit with technologies that might assist with autonomous vehicle testing,” Wadsworth added.

Despite the many benefits that would come from designating official AV proving grounds throughout the nation, some concerns have been raised about the required data-sharing component — the idea of which also was iterated in the guidelines for AV regulations proposed in September by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

“Some partners may not want to share any data,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director for the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority, which operates GoMentum Station in Concord, Calif. 

Because GoMentum Station is on private land, it's not subject to the same data-sharing requirements issued by the California DMV. It is a public-private partnership between the county and several technology and vehicle companies, including Acura, Honda and EasyMile. So before any decision on whether or not to apply is made, Iwasaki said all of the private partners will weigh in on what they think.

And Iwasaki is not the only one with this concern; it has been voiced by several industry giants.

In Las Vegas, Wadsworth said understands the concern, but believes the payoff of the returning data compensates for it.

And the sensitivity of sharing of data is something the DOT understands. It's not about exposing competitive data, a DOT spokesperson said; reducing mistake redundancy and utilizing testing grounds effectively is key to advancing the technology. Iwasaki understands the predicament, saying that it is not a wise use of resources if every test track is running the same test, gathering the same results.

"We all understand that the potential for this technology is huge," Iwasaki said.

Autonomous vehicles could create both a safer and more efficient transportation environment, he said, pointing to freight shipping. “We are already 25,000 to 30,000 truck drivers short,” he said, adding that with population growth, it will only exacerbate the problem. The Uber-owned Otto, which specializes in autonomous big-rigs, uses GoMentum Station as its testing facility.

Towing the line between fostering innovation among potential market rivals while protecting competitive data is a delicate operation and a learning experience — but it is something the DOT is willing to take on. And given that this is a pilot program, the department is open to comments on the process.

The selection of the initial proving ground sites is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2017.

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.