Guest Op-Ed: Managed Lane Operators: Holding the Keys to a Connected and Autonomous Future

March 28, 2019

Dynamically-tolled managed lanes, such as the Express Lanes in Northern Virginia, are a perfect stepping stone between initial testing and open road tests.

It’s clear that autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation. But given the road upgrades and real-world tests necessary to make autonomous vehicles a reality – not to mention the need for clear regulation and, of course, the cost – it’s less clear how we get there.

Infrastructure companies should help lead the charge. They can provide fertile testing grounds, integrate new technologies and help finance the testing.

In 2018, President Trump unveiled a plan to improve the country’s infrastructure, replacing old highways and bridges with newer roads designed to work with tomorrow’s technology. Even though a Democratic House of Representatives may end up passing a substantially different bill, the president’s plan sought to allocate $200 billion in federal spending over the next 10 years. The remaining $1.3 trillion dollars were to come from state and local governments and the private sector, through public-private partnerships.

Given the budget constraints state and local governments face, infrastructure companies are stepping up. They are working with governments to build state-of-the-art managed lanes and toll roads, and these roads are the best platform to test autonomous vehicles.

The Current Legislative Environment

The federal government enacted voluntary guidelines for any company that plans to test autonomous vehicles. This shifts the burden to state legislatures to come up with plans on how to manage autonomous vehicles in their jurisdictions. While many legislatures have yet to introduce regulation, others have taken a more prescriptive approach to make their constituents feel safe about the emerging technology.

Arizona used light regulations to entice Uber to use the state’s roads as a testbed for its autonomous vehicles. Conversely, California requires autonomous vehicle companies to report any incidents that occur during the testing phase.

In the past three years, 33 states have enacted, or are enacting, legislation concerning autonomous vehicles. Twelve states have legislation in place establishing exploratory committees to look into the technology. Each year, more states are deciding how they want to move forward with this technology while lowering risks.

How Infrastructure Operators Can Help

Partnering with infrastructure operators that help monitor testing environments and provide safe public driving experiences is the logical solution for autonomous vehicle companies and local governments looking to further integrate autonomous vehicles into society.

Today, managed roads exist that are deliberately designed to limit traffic, which make them ideal testing grounds. Dynamic tolling—where tolls rise and fall in response to the amount of traffic on the road—guarantees a constant flow of traffic, and a targeted mile-per-hour speed with limited traffic around each vehicle. When many cars are on the road, the price increases, incentivizing drivers to avoid the road and keeping the flow of traffic steady.

The more controlled variables that are available, the better the location is for testing. At early stages of development, the best testing locations are simulations and test tracks, where 100% of the environment is controlled. Unfortunately, there is no perfect scenario for introducing the public to the testing environment. In 2018, both Uber and Tesla dealt with fallout stemming from fatal accidents. These accidents demonstrate concerning developments for autonomous vehicle companies, and have chilling effects on the public’s ability to accept autonomous vehicles on their highways.

We can overcome these incidents. Managed lane and toll road companies are working with auto manufacturers, universities, and state and federal government to do so. The Federal Highway Administration recently chose the I-95 Express Lanes to trial multiple cooperative technology applications due to the road’s reversible configuration that allowed for both segregated and integrated public traffic. These trials are now informing automakers in their efforts to commercialize cooperative applications.

The public is concerned about testing autonomous vehicles on residential streets, so a controlled environment is crucial. By limiting the number of external variables, state-of-the-art managed lanes provide the perfect testbeds to meld controlled environments with everyday traffic circumstances on infrastructure infused with cutting-edge technology.

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