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3 States Form Smart Belt Coalition to Collaborate on Autonomous Vehicle Development

The coalition of state agencies and academic institutions will share insights and best practices while supporting research and testing for automated and connected vehicle initiatives.

Following the end of the Civil War, a concerted effort was undertaken to create a standard railroad gauge for the distance between tracks throughout the U.S. Many railroads began as regional projects in large cities and began to disseminate outward. And not until a standard gauge was finally agreed upon and accepted by all regions of the country was the full potential of a transcontinental railroad fully realized.

It seems fitting that on the cusp of the next great revolution in transportation and mobility — the onset of connected, highly autonomous vehicles — that a similar standardization of communication channels and regulations be established.

At least that's the way Randy Cole, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike, sees it. “Standardization in emerging technologies has sometimes been a painful process,” he said. “Once they got to a standard gauge and you could sell a ticket or move freight to a much larger market, everyone was better off.”

So in the spirit of collaboration and hoping to set standards for connected, autonomous vehicles, a coalition between state agencies and academic institutions has been formed. Called the Smart Belt Coalition, its members include:

  • Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and Carnegie Mellon University;
  • Michigan: Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan State University and University of Michigan; and
  • Ohio: Ohio Department of Transportation, Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, the Ohio State University and Transportation Research Center.
The stated goal of the coalition is “to support research, testing, policy, funding pursuits and deployment, as well as share data and provide unique opportunities for private-sector testers,” according to the release.

All of these states are well entrenched in researching connected and autonomous vehicles. Pennsylvania has appointed an Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force, which is working closely with the coalition on developing safety standards while encouraging innovation for the project. Pittsburgh was also the first city to feature self-driving Ubers for the public.

Michigan has long been the automotive center of the country and is taking steps to continue that legacy into the 21st century. In late 2016, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing for more relaxed rules on testing autonomous vehicles by eliminating a human driver requirement for all tests. The University of Michigan also has developed a testing facility, MCity, that has partnerships with vehicle manufacturers to perform safety tests.

On Nov. 30, 2016, Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced the formation of the $15 million Smart Mobility Corridor project that will serve as a testing ground for connected vehicles. The 35-mile stretch of highway is peppered with sensors that relay information to traffic control sites, which then are used to communicate with roadway drivers. The state has partnered with OTTO Motors, an Uber-owned company that focuses on connected and autonomous freight.

Safety is the biggest driving force behind the proliferation of this technology. “Safety will always be at the forefront,” said Pennsylvania DOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt. Similar statements were echoed by Cole: "We know that distracted drivers, tired and impaired drivers whether its freight and commercial or passenger vehicles, that's where the majority of accidents come from.”

Creating a testing site that can cross state boundaries and running the same tests in three different locations can advance the research. “The more we can share, the better the system will be,” said Waters-Trasatt. Some of the highest potential lies within autonomous shipping trucks and connecting freight vehicles. “Freight is logical; it is something we all have in common,” said Matt Smith, ITS program administrator for the Michigan DOT. “Freight is the backbone of our industry,” Smith said, "So we are interested in moving freight quickly and efficiently.”

Just focusing on the Ohio Turnpike, more than 11 million commercial truck trips are taken annually, with 1 billion miles driven on the 241-mile route. The turnpike connects New York and Pennsylvania with markets in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. “If there is a buckle on the Belt, it's us,” said Cole.

American Trucking Associations predicts that within a couple years, there will be a 100,000-person trucking driver shortage. This technology could combat that figure and help make those jobs safer.

In order to create a uniform code that will allow driverless cars and connected vehicles to seamlessly cross state borders, a collaborative effort, “for all these systems to work, we have to look beyond one state, one jurisdiction,” said Smith. “We can each take different pieces of the puzzle,” said Cole, “figure them out and then link them together.”

Each state is thinking about how local governments can be brought to the table. It is an open door, suggested Cole. “It cannot just be state agencies and academia working on this.”

In terms of the federal government, the coalition aims to work closely with representatives from the U.S. Transportation Department. While it is a period of transition for the department, Cole said that from what he has seen in the confirmation hearings for Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of transportation, she seems to favor adoption of the emerging technologies.

“This is the future of transportation,” said Smith. “It is quickly having a technological component to it. It is exciting, the promise of it is huge, but there is still a lot that needs to be worked out.”

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.