The electrification and automation of this nation requires governmental cooperation

user-gravatar Headshot

Earlier this month, Michigan okayed a bill that allows companies to test self-driving cars on public state roads.

Currently, eight states have some form of autonomous regulation on the books, however, Michigan’s rule – which allows for the testing vehicles not equipped steering wheels, pedals or humans – put the state among the most autonomous friendly in the nation.

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle, says his plan is for Michigan to become the place that helps to redefine mobility for the future.

Michigan’s package of bills also allows for automated vehicle platoons, where vehicles travel together at electronically coordinated speeds. But while driverless passenger cars seemingly have free reign of the roads, humans are required for testing of self-driving tractor-trailers.

Michigan is pretty much where the American automobile was born, so it makes since the state wants to cement Detroit’s legacy.

With much of the restrictions lifted from the state’s roadways, General Motors (GM) Chairman and CEO Mary Barra says the metro Detroit-area will serve as the company’s primary cold weather and winter testing grounds for autonomous technology.

“GM will immediately begin autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in Michigan,” she says, noting GM is currently testing more than 40 autonomous vehicles in Scottsdale, Ariz., and San Francisco.

But Colorado, which recently served as the host for what is believed to be the first autonomous delivery of a commercial load, isn’t willing to cede to Michigan without a fight.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is investing $20 million in the next year to combat congestion and improve safety through the use of technology, a project dubbed RoadX. Among the initiatives in the program’s sights is the testing of a stretch of highway with an embedded electric coil that will feed power to electric-powered trucks via inductive charging.

“Electrified roadways will use technologies that are available today,” says Jim Hanson, Akins’ North American director of intelligent mobility. He adds many smart phones and watches already on the market get their batteries refilled through inductive charging. “The idea is to scale that up.”

Atkins, a design, engineering and project management consultancy, is working with CDOT on RoadX.

A truck running 65 miles an hour down a Colorado highway while simultaneously receiving a charge is likely many years away. The initial focus of RoadX will be the ability to charge a smaller electric passenger car, possibly while parked on the side of the road.

“[To charge a moving vehicle], that kind of technology does not exist today,” Hanson says. “Then it would need to be ramped up.”

“Commercial vehicles can gain a lot of benefit from these technologies but to scale up to that level is going to take a bit of time.”

By 2018, CDOT says the RoadX program is slated to deploy technology that will reduce the cost of transporting goods by 25 percent, turn a rural state highway into a zero death road and improve congestion on Colorado’s critical corridors.

This month U.S. Department of Transportation issued a proposed rule that would enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology on all new light-duty vehicles, which once fully deployed U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says “will provide 360-degree situational awareness on the road and will help us enhance vehicle safety.”

The proposed rule would require automakers to include V2V technologies in all new light-duty vehicles. The rule proposes requiring V2V devices to “speak the same language” through standardized messaging developed with industry.

The DOT says V2V devices would use the dedicated short range communications (DSRC) to transmit data, such as location, direction and speed, to nearby vehicles and that data would be updated and broadcast up to 10 times per second to nearby vehicles. Using that information, V2V-equipped vehicles could identify risks and provide warnings to drivers to avoid imminent crashes.

Privacy is also protected in V2V safety transmissions. V2V technology does not involve the exchange of information linked to linkable to a person, and the rule would require extensive privacy and security controls in any V2V devices.

With over-the-air communication and technology handling basic functions like steering and pedal input, Hanson says vehicle hacking is a realistic concern. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, along with automotive OEMs, he says, are all looking at ways to minimize the occurrence of hacking but much of the development of encrypting the connection will fall on the vehicle’s manufacturer.

“Most vehicles already have some level of communication in them that needs to be secure,” he says, “and I think that will continue to be a risk that we’re going to have to mitigate. But [OEMs] are already coming up with system that are difficult to hack.”

As vehicles travel down connected highways, the onus of security will be shared by state DOTs. Many states currently use digital traffic signs that are updated remotely. Though the signs are sometimes the target of hackers’ messages, that digital architecture will likely be the bones from which a connected highway is built.

“There’s already a lot of security in place to limit access to that type of information,” Hanson adds.

Until there is a nationwide standard of what is and what is not allowable across the different levels of autonomy, the kind of tested needed for this technology to really take off will be held back.

I think 2017 will be a big year for the states that currently have no autonomous regulation on the books to finally all get on the same page.