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

April 10, 2017 Robert Fischer, GTiMA President

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.