Proving It: Connected Infrastructure & AV Research Vital to a National Strategy

When envisioning the coming age of autonomous vehicles, it’s easy to get stuck on picturing AVs themselves. Their sophisticated sensors, flashy dashboards, and roomy cabins have created a lot of well-deserved buzz.

The problem with that is it’s an incomplete vision. While AVs themselves are glamorous, vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies are essential to their efficacy. Without V2I tech, the autonomous vehicle dream might not come true.

Steve Caya is head of production at Roadview — a subsidiary of Mandli Communications, which specializes in geospatial mapping of transportation infrastructure. The field work he and others at the company have done over the years has underscored the need for V2I tech, he says.

His take: “just as human drivers require visual and auditory cues to ensure a safe journey, driverless cars will need vast amounts of vehicle-to-infrastructure communications data to understand their world.”

Welcome to the era of V2I, where the technology outside the car is as critical as the technology inside the car.

Defining the coming age this way allows us to stress what needs to be done to prepare the way for autonomous vehicles. And we can put that in simple terms: funding for the AV proving grounds.

President Trump has promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. That sounds promising. And it sets him up for an easy policy victory: funding for infrastructure that includes V2I is a smart, forward-looking investment. It leads to a new age of productivity and safety in transportation. So it’s an easy chip shot for the President — right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Even if the President laid out the perfect infrastructure bill, he still would need Congress to vote it into law. And Congress uses separate authorizing legislation for each category of infrastructure. There’s surface transportation, air transportation, water resources, telecommunications, and energy — to name a few. Congressional committees mirror this stratified approach.

The result, not to mince words, is trench warfare. Adie Tomer, a Metropolitan Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institute wrote: “more than half a dozen committees in each chamber [claim] at least some responsibility for infrastructure design and oversight,” with each sector gunning for its planning ambitions, construction methods, and funding streams.

So it should come as no surprise that the US does not have a single, comprehensive infrastructure strategy — let alone a plan to fund it. Up until now, it’s never existed. “Developing a single ‘infrastructure bill’ would require a Congressional Tower of Babel,” Tomer continued.

That said, in spite of popular belief, sometimes Congress does actually break new ground to get things done. And they made a great first step toward that recently.

On April 7th, Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) led a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate — which included Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) — in calling for increased funding to support the advancement of connected and automated vehicle technologies. This appeal took the form of a letter to the Chair of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

The letter asked Congress to appropriate funding for CAV technologies’ development and testing at the various AV proving ground sites across the US. This is timely and appropriate. Before the recent designation of the proving-ground sites by the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were no national testing facilities whatsoever for testing AV tech.

That’s right: none. And while they are in critical need of funding, the AV proving ground sites are ideal locations to carry out the huge amount of necessary testing. After all, the promise of autonomous vehicles, in sum, is a car accurately performing safety-critical driving functions in a defined scenario, such as a driverless-car-only roadway. The proving grounds sites are therefore a huge opportunity: where else could AVs and V2I technology, and the interactions between them, be tested safely in the exact sort of environment for which they’re designed?

The Senators understand the importance of the proving grounds. They wrote: “connected and automated vehicles are going to be developed abroad if we do not take the lead in making sure these technologies are advanced right here in the United States.” Recent investments by Chinese firms in AV start-ups certainly bear this out.

“Identifying and selecting these initial proving grounds was a crucial first step, but the USDOT must now be given the resources to work quickly to ensure that testing and evaluation at these facilities can begin as soon as possible,” the letter continued.

These Senators actually get it — quite refreshing. They understand that V2I and AV technologies go hand-in-hand. They know these proving grounds sites, which generally bring together research institutions and tech companies, are key to building a national strategy around integrating this technology. And they can see that time is of the essence if the US is to lead the way for the AV revolution.

Steve Caya said he’s excited, along with the rest of the company, about the partnership. “There are significant challenges on the road ahead,” he said, “but testing and researching this revolutionary technology is imperative, and we’re glad to be taking part in it.”

After all, this technology could prevent 90 percent of all traffic fatalities. So while Congress dukes it out in the trenches, the real action lies in these proving grounds. We hope Congress is serious about developing a national smart infrastructure strategy to support AV tech. And, with optimism on that front, we applaud the bipartisan group of Senators calling for funding the proving grounds. It’s not a bad start, and we hope the rest of the government is listening.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.

Atlanta Bridge Crisis: A Plea For Federal Infrastructure Investment

“It’s bad news — you’re going to have to drive around the sun, practically, to get around the city.”

That’s how an Atlanta resident described the effect of the recent fire on I-85, a section of highway just a few miles north of downtown that resulted in a bridge collapse and a miles-long highway closure. Having lived in Atlanta, not far from the interchange in question, I winced when I heard that. If an Atlanta driver is using hyperbole of that intensity about traffic congestion, it’s a very bad sign.

The week after I moved out of Atlanta following a couple of years living there, a light snow storm forced traffic to a dead stop on I-85. It was big news a few years ago. People abandoned their cars by the side of the road and walked home. For anyone who recalls that incident, it’s clear that the bridge collapse is not just an unfortunate accident, it’s a crisis dropping to an even deeper level.

It’ll take 6 months to a year to rebuild the bridge and reopen that section of I-85. And since there are few alternatives for the millions of people that commute from the Atlanta suburbs north of the city into downtown every day, it’s causing massive delays in a city that already is close to the top of the congestion charts. There are surprisingly few alternate routes for getting around the city — I-85 is the main road for commuters coming in from the suburbs to work — and what few there are now jammed with traffic like never before. The I-85 closure in Atlanta is going to cause major waste problems for businesses and workers all throughout the metro area.

The problem here extends far beyond the bridge fire and its collapse. It’s rather like the straw that broke the brace applied in desperation to the camel’s back. Atlanta’s traffic problems were already an emergency and have been for years. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias recently ran a piece arguing that the bridge collapse merely “highlights” the “regional transportation planning disaster” that is the City of Atlanta.

He’s right. And the problem isn’t Atlanta’s alone. For many southern cities, Atlanta is a nightmare vision of the future. That’s because it’s the biggest and busiest of a number of cities that have become sprawling as their populations swell. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I was born in 1983, the population was somewhere around 200,000 people. Today, the Raleigh Metropolitan Statistical Area has an estimated population of over 1.3 million. Add neighboring Durham and Chapel Hill into the mix (which comprises an area of relative size equivalence to the Atlanta Metro area), and it’s over 2 million people.

That’s still a far cry from the Atlanta Metro’s’ 5.7 million residents, but the growth of areas like Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill has been so swift, and with zoning so similar to Atlanta’s, there are several parts in the South where people shake their heads sadly and say “looks like we’re going to be the next Atlanta.” Sprawl has become the model for “urban planning” throughout the southeast. Regional planning seems nonexistent as suburb after suburb is tacked on and begins to boom, each one further out than the last from the urban center, where most people out in the suburbs work.

Yglesias points out something crucial to understanding the problem when he cites the failure of the 2012 referendum that would have imposed a one-cent-per-gallon gas tax for use in repairing and expanding roadway infrastructure in Atlanta. A critical need for a city of Atlanta’s size, existing as it does in a state that is anywhere between 48th-50th in per capita highway spending.

That measure was struck down convincingly, 65-35, split entirely by suburban vs urban lines. For people in the suburbs, the traffic is a nuisance, but it’s ultimately not close to home and not, in their minds, their problem. For people in the urban center, traffic is a massive disruption in a person’s daily life, and severely limits the mobility of those without a car, since Atlanta’s sub-par public transit is slowed considerably — limiting the range of options for a person to find work.

MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system, is famously insufficient and inefficient. MARTA stops are far-flung and there aren’t enough of them — and good luck trying to find buses or trains that are anywhere close to being on schedule. Park-and-ride lots work as a solution for some people, but that, of course, involves owning a car.

There are current and historical reasons behind MARTA’s inefficiency. Just like the roads that were planned on the fly as the city went along, MARTA had to come together quickly to make up for lost time, and its coverage reflects an earlier version of the Atlanta metro area, with plenty of unserved regions. This is because of the city’s initial refusal to — you guessed it — pass a referendum to create it. During the civil rights era, MARTA was as much a race-based political football as it was a planned system for public transit. Just like the 2012 referendum, those that had less of a need for MARTA said “not my problem” and voted against it.

And today, the state invests woefully little in public transit. Georgia spends 55 cents per person yearly on public transit. Massachusetts, by contrast, spends $376 per person. There is simply no money available to improve it.

Which is the problem that Atlanta now faces with the bridge collapse and highway closure. Having voted down all referenda that would have given the city a coffer from which to repair roads and infrastructure, Atlanta has no good option. Federal emergency funds were released after the collapse, and the Governor said it was enough for the short-term fix (on a very long projected work schedule) but not for a long-term solution.

That means the bridge, once repaired, will likely be worse off than it was before the fire. It’s worth noting that when federal funds are provided to states for transit emergencies like this one, the money usually winds up well spent. It’s just that those funds are limited and partly emergency-based.

This is an untenable situation. The stratification of wealth in Atlanta is exacerbated by this problem. Cars sitting in traffic are adding excessive carbon to the atmosphere, and businesses are losing money as people spend more time sitting in traffic. And other cities are close behind. So there needs to be a solution — before this problem gets so bad that people begin to leave these cities in droves.

I want to see communities making smart choices about modernizing their infrastructure. I wish this could be left in the hands of the Atlanta voter. But this suburb versus urban voter showdown seems here to stay, at least for now. It’s hard to change several million minds all at once.

The logical response, in view of local voter deadlock, is a federal investment in infrastructure. We know the state government has already made good use of what funds they’ve received, and we should trust them to do this again with money earmarked for infrastructure.

For the suburban commuters to see the value of their approving a measure like the one that failed in 2012, they have to see transportation funds in action. My hope is that the federal government does more than just support short-term fixes to the bridge, and instead makes a big investment in U.S. infrastructure across the board. It’s essential to our productivity and, for many citizens, is literally a life-or-death issue.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.

Bi-partisan support in the Senate for AV/CV funding. Thank you to our Senator Tammy Baldwin!

Peters, Tillis Lead Colleagues in Calling for Funding to Advance Self-Driving Vehicles

USDOT Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds Will Serve as Hubs for Developing Advanced Automotive Technologies

April 7, 2017, Washington, DC

U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) today led a bipartisan group of their Senate colleagues in a letter calling for increased funding to support the advancement of connected and automated vehicle (CAV) technologies. The letter specifically calls for Congress to appropriate funding for the safe development and testing of CAV technologies at U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT) federally-designated proving grounds. The letter was sent to Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI).

“The auto industry is in the midst of a seismic technological shift that will revolutionize the transportation of people and goods in our lifetime. Connected and self-driving cars can reduce dramatically the more than 35,000 lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around,” wrote the Senators.

“Connected and automated vehicles are going to be developed abroad if we do not take the lead in making sure these technologies are advanced right here in the United States,” the Senators continued. “Identifying and selecting these initial proving grounds was a crucial first step, but USDOT must now be given the resources to work quickly to ensure that testing and evaluation at these facilities can begin as soon as possible.”

Connected and automated vehicle technologies have the potential to reduce traffic accidents, save thousands of lives lost on American roads each year, and ensure that the United States remains at the forefront of groundbreaking automotive innovation. Last year, at Senator Peters’ urging, USDOT opened a competition to designate national testing facilities for advanced automotive technologies. In January, USDOT named ten facilities across the country as federally-designated proving grounds for the development of automated vehicles. Prior to these designations, there was no national testing facility in the United States for CAV technologies.

The designees include:

  • American Center for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, MI
  • City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute
  • Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership
  • U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center in Aberdeen, MD
  • Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) & GoMentum Station
  • San Diego Association of Governments
  • Iowa City Area Development Group
  • Wisconsin AV Proving Grounds / University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners
  • North Carolina Turnpike Authority

The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Burr (R-NC), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

A copy of the letter is available here.

Source: United States Senator for Michigan Gary Peters

Cutting the Costs of Congestion

Does sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic seem worth $124 billion a year to you?

That’s the yearly cost of traffic congestion, according to Forbes’ coverage of a 2014 study by INRIX and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Yes, you read that right. Not only is sitting in traffic a hassle for just about every individual that drives a car in the United States, it comes at a tremendous price.

The study breaks down the wasted money into two categories. Direct losses, which arise from wasted fuel, harm to the environment, and the loss of time devoted to productivity. And indirect losses arising from the extra expenses posed to businesses. It’s more expensive to transport goods, attend meetings and conduct business in congested areas. Businesses, of course, pass that cost on to consumers.

$124 billion is such a huge number, it invites some perspective. That’s more than what the U.S. government spends every year on transportation. Or on housing. Or on protecting the environment, scientific research, and tending to international affairs combined. Given the necessity of these programs, this large chunk of GDP disappearing every year for no tangible benefit isn’t just an annoying waste. It’s a tragic loss of badly-needed money, leaked minute-by-minute in traffic jams, every day, every year.

There’s good news: there is a solution. Experts tell us that AVs could reduce congestion by 80 percent or more. They’d be able to do this through vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Humans, of course, lack the ability to be in constant contact with other nearby drivers in traffic. As a result, moving through a traffic jam is quite inefficient. The majority of time wasted happens after the clearance of blockage ahead. There’s a start-stop chain effect as individual drivers recognize it’s safe to move forward. A few seconds here and there as each car in line starts to move on a badly congested highway adds up. Cars that communicate with one another can know, simultaneously, that it’s time to move and begin accelerating at the same rate as a unit – and that alone would end the traffic jam as we know it.

Bottom line, we’re not equipped, as AVs are, with sensors that allow us to see through visual obstacles to assess whatever’s ahead. We’re not in touch with other drivers. And even if we somehow were, it’d still be impossible for drivers to act with the precision necessary to move through slowly-unraveling traffic jams. The precision of movement promised by AVs acting in concert has countless benefits.

But wait, there’s even more good news: we don’t have to wait for the AV revolution. Because there is a lot to figure out when it comes to the cloud-based communication AVs will use, AVs are not likely to comprise the majority of cars on the road. Thus, they’re not a realistic fix in the short term. Luckily, smart cities and data collection specialists have roles to play as well. According to the Forbes coverage of the congestion waste study, “just as online traffic is managed through routers and optimized, traffic on the roadways could be better-managed and optimized through better data, which in turn would lead to dynamic traffic signal timing, dynamic high-occupancy vehicle lanes, congestion-based pricing.”

That’s right, real-time data collection would make a big difference in the battle against congestion. Satellite navigation systems, GPS in cars and trucks, information gathered by cellular carriers, and devoted smartphone applications can all provide layers of data which, once aggregated, can help dynamic infrastructure function at a level which would offset a large portion of total congestion.

As an example, Forbes’ coverage noted that Los Angeles – which has the dubious distinction of accounting for nearly 20 percent of the USA’s total congestion costs – recently took a stab at using data to cut congestion. They “used real traffic data to optimize the traffic signal timing on more than 10,000 traffic signals.” But one of the experts who conducted the study wasn’t satisfied with this effort, simply because it relied on static data. “What you really want is dynamic data, so that the traffic signals across a city could change dynamically in terms of intervals to better move traffic around a network,” the expert said.

So bottom line, while AVs show promise in the long run, smart infrastructure seemingly show promise in the short run. Further investment in the Internet of Everything and a smarter approach to data mapping and management are things we can do now. If we do, we’ll see a steady decline in congestion — and as a result, a rise in productivity and a decline in our carbon footprint, and household budgets will get some direly-needed relief as less money winds up going to gas. We still have many advances yet to make in clearing the way for the AV revolution, but investing in smart infrastructure would be a heck of a good start.

It reminds me of the old saying: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In this case, which set of benefits will lead to the next set of benefits – smart infrastructure or AVs?

I say who cares, give me my scrambled eggs.

Tractors, Hackers, and Other Factors: The Necessity of Neutral Third Parties in the AV Realm

When you imagine a farmer going about his workday, you probably envision some sort of bucolic series of tasks: milking cows, tilling soil, sowing seeds.

It’s a pretty safe bet that you wouldn’t imagine that farmer scouring subscription-only internet forums to find someone selling Ukrainian software that will help him hack his tractor. But that’s what’s happening today, according to a recent news report from Motherboard. In fact, the report says, it’s becoming so prevalent that there’s a “thriving black market” dedicated to the creation and sale of hacked tractor firmware. Just as the farmer supports his family based on his yearly crop yield, there are presumably Ukrainian families out there putting food on the table based on how many tractors their breadwinner managed to hack that month.

In the AV industry, there remain big questions about how everything is going to work. Over the past few months, car manufacturers have made big investments in AV tech, and that could be a very good thing: these companies have the money and the expertise needed to run the sort of tests that will get us closer to being able to roll out the next generation of vehicles safely. But some recent history –- the VW emissions scandal comes to mind –- suggests that we need to be careful not to put all our trust into one group.

Which brings us back to the Ukrainian tractor-hack. Farmers are saying they’re forced to go this route for a simple reason: John Deere, a major manufacturer of tractors that supplies the majority of farmers in the U.S., has recently updated their license agreement to stipulate that farmers must have all repairs done by mechanics that work for the manufacturer. According to one farmer, “you want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can’t drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.” In other words, without the hacked firmware, farmers are having to pay far more for repairs than their budgets allow.

That’s why the Ukrainian-firmware story is a cautionary tale for those of us interested in the safe rollout of autonomous vehicles. This problem could have been avoided if there were a system with a strong regulatory framework. A neutral third party would obviously have seen a company using its popularity to develop a monopoly on servicing vehicles. Instead, farmers are addressing the Nebraska state legislature, pleading for intervention.

While we surely want to see manufacturers involved and invested in the development of AV tech, and we want to ensure that it’s a profitable business for everyone involved, we cannot trust any single company or conglomerate to handle the specifics of how it all works on its own. There must be a system where neutral third parties vet the process. Otherwise, we risk car companies gaming the system for profit, putting lives and potentially the viability of the industry at risk. This is not a knock on car companies, or companies in general. They are essential to the development of AVs. But because there’s a lot of money to be made in this field, we must ensure that profit motive doesn’t trump safety at any point in the process.

A couple of examples of concerns related to this point. First, there’s security. These tractors can be hacked by a program on a USB stick. This is not a good look for the AV community, when one of our most-predicted downfalls has to do with hackers taking over vehicles at will. The safety and security of the systems will have to be thoroughly vetted. Security flaws in devices have been regularly reported as the tech industry has boomed. That’s partly because a security flaw may never be noticed and breached, and even if so, it’s not going to hurt the sale of a particular piece of technology unless it becomes a problem quickly, as the product is being rolled out.

And then there’s the data that will be collected by AVs as they hit the road. They won’t just be building maps, they’ll also collect data on themselves, their own performance and accuracy. Without a third-party auditor, what’s to stop a manufacturer from editing or just not reporting data that might hurt their brand? We’d like to think they would, on an ethical basis, be fully open and revealing with their data. But the adage “trust but verify” comes to mind. This is why we have regulatory groups all over the country – when there’s a profit motive involved, everything needs independent verification. And even if companies fully divulge all data to DOTs, there would need to be a group that could ensure its quality. If a group specializing in data quality saw that a particular car, or a particular navigation system, was consistently producing below-average data, they could allow the manufacturers to use that information to improve the product — thus heading off potential liability issues down the road.

Businesses moving into the field of independent verification of data quality and security seems like the most logical course of action. It would benefit everyone –- state governments wouldn’t have to spend inordinate amounts of money to hire experts to get it done, insurance companies would know in advance of any issues and could adapt their algorithms accordingly, vehicle and sensor manufacturers could be warned of problems with their equipment.

And Ukrainian hackers would have to hope tractor manufacturers didn’t notice.

Heath Davis-Gardner is a professional writer and editor who currently serves as Strategic Communications Specialist at Mandli Communications.