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How the I-70 Corridor Will Help Meet the Challenges of Transitioning to Autonomous Trucks

The stretch of I-70 connecting Indianapolis to Columbus will soon be the staging ground for an autonomous trucking pilot project. In early June, The I-70 Truck Autonomation Corridor Project got the greenlight in the form of a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Added to that, DriveOhio, a consortium of public offices along with private freight haulers, truck manufacturers, technology providers, and logistics councils, has contributed $4.5 million of their own to the project, bringing the total to $8.9 million.

The aim of the project is to gain insights into what will be required to ensure self-driving trucks are safe. It will also look in to how the industry can put the technology to optimal use. Over the course of four years, self-driving trucks will be traversing the corridor, with human drivers onboard to take over should the need arise. Along the way, project members will be tracking progress along the routes, monitoring performance, recording any safety incidents, and testing out different approaches to management. They will also be experimenting with a variety of interfaces between the autonomous trucks and technology-enhanced infrastructure.

The Corridor Project is only one of many initiatives helping to pave the way for the advancement of self-driving technologies. But it provides an example of how the federal government can team up with state officials and private businesses to lay the groundwork for the transition to new technologies. When most people hear about the prospect of self-driving vehicles taking over the roads, their first thought is of safety. Will these vehicles be able to avoid collisions?

But safety is just one of many key factors that will go into the technology’s eventual success.

Living the Dream while Avoiding the Nightmare

Imagine a couple scenarios for what a future with autonomous vehicles may look like. In the first, people continue buying cars for themselves and use them as regularly as they do today—only now people without licenses can buy cars too, since they drive themselves. On busy streets with difficult-to-access parking, their cars may circle the block while they shop or run errands. At the same time, countless retailers have their own fleets of automated vehicles to deliver products and supplies, and they respond to orders as soon as they arrive.

Now, in this scenario, will delivery times be longer or shorter? Will traffic move faster or slower?

It’s all too easy to see how autonomous vehicles could lead to increased congestion and gridlock, as delivery is de-centralized and cars can go entire round trips without ever parking. Add to this mix the growing trend for cities to offer shareable vehicles like scooters and the potential for constant delays seems even more real.

The alternative scenario has inducements to the use of public transportation. During business hours, prime curbside space is reserved for autonomous buses, ride sharing drop-offs, and deliveries. Dynamic pricing for afterhours curbside parking could help to raise funds for road repair while managing the number of vehicles circling the block in search of spaces. There could also be coordination between autonomous taxis, say, and buses or subways that will carry passengers over most of their journeys, further clearing the roads and reducing drive times.

Fewer vehicles on the roads for less time means fewer emissions. It also means shorter freight delivery times, which means reduced fuel costs for fleets.

Infrastructure and Autonomy

What comparing the two scenarios above highlights is that developing safe and effective self-driving technologies is only one of many challenges facing the transportation industry as it moves closer to an autonomous future. One major problem the industry faces—whether the transition to autonomous vehicles continues on pace or not—is that the US currently has an $836 billion backlog of needed infrastructure repairs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Potholes, crumbling bridges, and fading road stripes not only pose difficulties for truckers of traditional vehicles, but they also make things much harder on those working to develop self-driving programs. Imagine trying to learn how to drive a truck when, according to the International Roughness Index, only 41% of the roads in the US offer a “good ride.” Now, imagine trying to program a truck to do it.

Another issue that will need addressing is that infrastructure funding, as insufficient as it currently is, comes from fuel taxes, and alongside the development of self-driving technologies there’s also a move underway toward electric vehicles. So, the shortfall for infrastructure costs will be even worse than it is today.

Does the Promise Outweigh the Costs?

Does all this mean moving to autonomous transportation will cost more than it’s worth?

Consider shipping times between two distant cities. A human driver is required to limit time behind wheel to eleven hours by the FMCSA’s hours of service rules, after which time that driver will have to take a break of a designated length. These rules were put in place to reduce the number of accidents caused by fatigued drivers. But autonomous trucks won’t have to worry about the number of hours they’re on the road; they can make the trip without stopping.

Cutting delivery times in this way could have huge economic benefits. Again, though, these benefits may never be realized if traffic isn’t properly managed. Shorter delivery times are just the start of the benefits though. There should also be a drop in the number of accidents, as automated vehicles will never get distracted or lose focus. As safety records improve, that will mean lower insurance rates.

The funding for the I-70 Truck Automation Corridor from the Federal Highway Administration came from a division called the Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment Program. Its focus is on making technological advancements work for everyone, without running us all into unforeseen issues, like nationwide gridlock. The closer the trucking industry gets to going fully autonomous, the more serious of a threat these issues will pose. But if we can successfully navigate around them, the upsides could deliver not just trucking, but the entire economy a shot of new life.

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