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How Infrastructure Disrepair Is Holding Back Autonomous Vehicles

By distributing some of the burden for autonomous vehicles to connected infrastructure, we could see mobility-enhancing technology improve and come to market more rapidly.

On April 4, Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Elaine Chao spoke to a group of business leaders at a town hall-style event with business CEOs and suggested that an infrastructure package could come as soon as May. While the administration had previously shelved infrastructure plans until tackling health care and tax reform, the announcement seems to indicate a shift in priorities.

“We’re working on a legislative package that will probably be in May,” Chao said at the event.

At the same event, President Donald Trump doubled down on his campaign line of spending $1 trillion on infrastructure. “We’re talking about a very major infrastructure bill of a trillion dollars — perhaps even more,” he said. This seems to run contrary to his recent budget proposal, which would slash DOT funding by 13 percent, or $2.4 billion.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, trying to square the circle, explained that the administration believes those programs being cut are less efficient than the infrastructure package it's working on for later this year.

"So what we’ve effectively done is try to move money out of existing, more inefficient programs, and hold that money for what we expect to be more efficient infrastructure programs later on," he said, though he did not explain what those more efficient programs would be or what form they might take.

The plausibility of a large infrastructure package being released in May remains in flux. While there is widespread bipartisan support for investing in rebuilding America’s infrastructure, there are major disagreements on how to fund it, what should be prioritized and what types of standards will be used.

Speaking on March 30 in Concord, Calif., at GoMentum Station's Redefining Mobility Summit, John Augustine, director of the DOT Office of Infrastructure Finance and Innovation, explained how the state of roads and lack of vehicle connectivity infrastructure in the country have hindered the progress of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Trying to create a fully autonomous vehicle is incredibly challenging, explained Augustine, adding that while some of the onus could be shared between infrastructure and the vehicles themselves, “today’s vision is: Let’s have complete burden on the vehicle.”

Rebuilding the country’s roadways with sensors and other smart infrastructure, however, could drastically ease complications for some AV manufacturers. While fully autonomous vehicles would theoretically be able to drive in any environment without any human intervention, the sweet spot, according to Augustine, is connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

The reason? CAVs would leverage the benefits of both connectivity and autonomy. They could instantly receive information about construction zones and closed roads, and re-route accordingly. After all, it is incredibly difficult to program a vehicle to understand driving directions from a police officer who's explaining how to avoid a collision on the road, explained Tom Baloga, senior director for Audi of America.

Looking at new building standards for smart roads is very important, said Augustine. Both clearly defined road striping and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication capabilities are pertinent.

“We should be thinking of infrastructure that will facilitate the implementation of AVs as we build roads and bridges,” Jeffrey Funk, economics of transportation professor at the National University of Singapore, told Government Technology. “Smart sensors and fiber lines are good ideas.”

In January 2017, the Center for Digital Government* surveyed state and local officials who are responsible for infrastructure and transportation. When asked about the possibility of incoming funding for infrastructure, 50 percent of respondents said they expected an increase in funding. However, only 23 percent of respondents indicated plans for infrastructure capable of communicating with connected vehicles within the next five years.

Some AV manufacturers have expressed that they are interested in rolling out AVs by 2021. And an expected increase in funding for roads and highways and adding in connected infrastructure requirements could lower the burden for the vehicles themselves and help get the technology to the public.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company. The survey yielded 146 responses. The purpose of this survey was to ask about trends, challenges, and upcoming procurement in the transportation and infrastructure vertical.

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.