If you think your car will be driving you anytime in the near future, think again.
Known as driverless or self-driving vehicles, autonomous vehicles are in the spotlight. But while the auto, tech and ride-share industries are driving the effort, the fact that automation levels vary means it will be a while before you’ll pass a truly driverless vehicle on your daily commute.
In Texas, the push toward autonomous vehicles is particularly strong, accelerated by circumstances that make it among the nation’s leaders as automation advances:
- Texas’ population growth is the largest of any state, according to U.S. Census data released in January; four of the five fastest-growing cities in the country with populations of 50,000 or more are in Texas, Census estimates have found; and Texas Demographic Center projections through 2045 suggest the state’s population will grow by 40 percent, with three-quarters of the population concentrated in urban areas and border counties.
- A new state law effective last September allows automakers and others to test automated vehicles on the state’s roads and highways without a driver inside.
- The Texas (Automated Vehicle) AV Proving Ground Partnership is one of 10 pilots designated in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Transportation “to encourage testing and information sharing around automated vehicle technologies.”
“Our growth is a function of a good economy, affordable housing and a good transportation network. To sustain that, you’ve got to keep enhancing and improving all those areas,” says Christopher Poe of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, who also serves as point person for the state’s proving grounds. “We’ve got to keep it up.”
The Texas AV Proving Ground Partnership includes research institutions: Poe’s employer Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute, the University of Texas—Austin and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Other participants include urban test sites,the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and 32 public agencies. These pockets of innovation are in settings as diverse as projects for Houston’s HOV lanes and El Paso’s border and port. The common thread is testing emerging transportation technologies and accompanying data collection.
The DOT’s proving grounds designation didn’t include funding, so the projects at the 10 sites are on their own – at least for the time being.
“The Department is still reviewing its options on how best to proceed with the Automated Proving Grounds PILOT program,” a DOT spokesperson said via email.
The Texas partnership took that federal designation as a green light, making the state’s effort a full-speed ahead move that’s showing up on the roads, either in controlled settings such as test tracks or in specific areas, such as in Arlington, where a yearlong pilot launched in August dubbed “Milo” is getting some attention. Free transportation via autonomous vehicle is offered from parking lots in the entertainment district to Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys games and other special events. For $272,000, the city of Arlington leased two low-speed shuttles, each with a dozen seats and an operator who provides information and is a backup in case the shuttle has to go into manual mode. There is no steering wheel and the operator does not drive.
In the state’s capital city, a pilot scheduled to launch within the next month will allow vehicles to “talk” to each other or to the infrastructure as a way to provide increased and advanced visibility for pedestrians, says Karla Taylor, chief of staff for the Austin Transportation Department.
The eight-week pilot will use DSRC – Dedicated Short Range Communications – installed at different intersections on the same six-lane divided road with high pedestrian activity and on 10 buses serving that route.
“If a pedestrian goes to a button to cross at the crosswalk, that button will be linked to the DSRC equipment and send a message to the approaching Capital Metro bus that a pedestrian is about to cross in the crosswalk,” Taylor says. “The buses will have tablets that send the message to the driver.”
Safety is cited as the overriding reason for the massive financial as well as research investment in automated vehicles. Human drivers make mistakes: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s report on motor vehicle crashes causesblames drivers for 94 percent of the crashes, with recognition errors for 41 percent, decision errors for 33 percent and performance errors for 11 percent of the crashes.
Darran Anderson, TxDOT director of strategy and innovation, says while safety is always first, automation offers additional benefits.
“If you reduce the number of crashes, it will reduce congestion due to crashes,” he says. “But whether it will reduce the amount of vehicles, a lot of those questions have not yet reached a point anybody can answer. It may increase the number of vehicles, but they may fit more in the same width of highway and may have the same rate of flow.”
Automated vehicles provide the assurance of safety without human error, allowing lane widths to shrink and vehicles to travel closer together, he says.
Such efforts are underway with two-vehicle truck platoons that travel in tight formation at short following distances. A truck platooning demonstration at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute aims to increase safety, improve mobility and save on fuel costs and emissions. With platoons, the lead truck is manually driven, while steering, acceleration and braking of the second truck (in which a driver is present but not driving) is automatically controlled. The vehicles are linked and communicate wirelessly.
“When they’re aligned perfectly and they’re following at close distances in highway speeds, there are significant fuel and emissions savings,” says Mike Lukuc, who oversees such tests at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station. “At 55 miles per hour traveling 30 to 60 feet apart – you can follow at that distance very safety – you start to see a 4- to 5-percent reduction in fuel consumption and a reduction in the lead truck and an 8- to 10-percent reduction in the second vehicle,” he says.
The Institute’s platooning research will be part of a study commissioned by the Michigan-based American Center for Mobility, another of the 10 DOT-designated proving grounds. The study, announced earlier this month, will concentrate on transportation jobs of the future — including taxi drivers, professional truck drivers and delivery drivers — and how autonomous vehicles will affect them.
In Texas, the new state law is an open invite to automakers and others that testing self-driving cars on state roads and highways is just fine with Texas.
“What happened in other states is that cities began to regulate in this arena and create a patchwork of legislation which makes it very difficult to operate in those states,” State Sen. Kelly Hancock, of North Richland Hills, says of the measure he sponsored in last year’s legislative session. “We wanted industry to recognize that Texas was friendly to this type of research.”
However, Texas wasn’t a leader in passage of automated vehicle legislation. Nevada was the first state – in 2011 – to authorize autonomous vehicles. Since then, 20 states have passed similar laws, while governors in Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin have issued executive orders related to automated vehicles. Arizona and California, like Texas, are among the nation’s leaders for testing of various types of autonomous vehicles. This rapid growth across the country prompted the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization for state lawmakers, to create a database for autonomous vehicle legislation.
“Texas, in particular, is one of best environments to test automated vehicles,” says Scott Hall, of the Auto Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing 12 automakers, including Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Toyota and Volvo Car USA.
For any driverless vehicle, there’s a defined level of automation, which ranges from Level 0 (a human driver) to Level 5 (fully automated with no human driver). That’s why the term “self-driving” or “autonomous” can mean many different levels of autonomy and doesn’t explain what the vehicle can do on its own and whether a driver is needed as a backup.
“It’s sort of a brave new world out there,” says Hall, of the Auto Alliance. “Autonomous vehicles represent a paradigm shift in transportation.”