Autonomous Vehicles: Still need a road to drive on

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Autonomous vehicles are heralded as the next big thing in transportation—the technology that will change everything. But there’s one part that won’t change: autonomous vehicles will still to drive on roads. And as you may have heard, our roads and bridges aren’t in great shape.

So far, autonomous vehicles are being tested in select settings. In Pittsburgh, Uber is testing a handful of self-driving cars with the goal of eventually switching its service to a fleet of autonomous vehicles. The ride-hailing app is even exploring self-driving trucks to make deliveries, with a successful 120-mile test run to deliver 50,000 cans of beer under their belt. Google has been testing its autonomous vehicles since 2009 and has self-driven more than 2 million miles. Uber and Google are hardly alone in the space, with a number of auto manufacturers and tech companies announcing they too are developing autonomous vehicles. Clearly driverless vehicles could open wide the doors of opportunity and improvement to our transportation landscape for both people and freight. ASCE’s Interchange video elaborates on autonomous vehicles’ ripple effects on the transportation landscape and communities.

Autonomous vehicles promise much in the arena of safety and travel convenience. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2015, 35,092 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the United States, which averages out to 96 people per day. This represented a 7.2% increase from 2014 and was the largest percentage increase in nearly 50 years. Most crashes have a component of human choice (whether that’s impaired driving, distracted driving or unsafe driving), so removing the human driver from the equation could dramatically decrease crashes and save lives.

Autonomous vehicles also have the potential to be an antidote to increasing congestion. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s 2015 Annual Urban Mobility Scorecard reported that traffic congestion causes drivers to waste more than three billion gallons of fuel and be stuck in their cars for nearly seven billion extra hours – 42 hours per rush-hour commuter per year. Autonomous vehicles could transform the definition of road capacity, as the number of vehicles that can travel safely in a given lane will greatly increase when computers are doing the driving.  Elderly and physically disabled people who are unable to drive will also have a chance to get around more freely.

While autonomous vehicles promise much in terms of congestion relief, safety improvements and modern conveniences, their advancement cannot come at the expense of maintaining our basic infrastructure system. The usability of autonomous vehicles is largely dependent on the quality of the roads and bridges that they will ride on—and currently that quality is lacking. One in ten U.S. bridges is structurally deficient and 20 percent of urban highways are in unacceptable condition. There is a $504 billion rehabilitation backlog for the nation’s highways and bridges. While these statistics may not seem directly related to autonomous vehicles, roads and bridges in good condition are critical to any vehicle that may use them, despite how advanced it might be.  The reality is that autonomous vehicles struggle to navigate potholes, unclear lane markings and poor signage.

The technology of the autonomous vehicle is close, yet our transportation infrastructure is stuck in the past, primarily due to insufficient funding. The best solution for this funding problem is fixing the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) to ensure that there is a reliable and adequate revenue stream for transportation. The HTF is meant to fund the federal government’s investments in highways, bridges and transit. It is primarily funded by an 18.4 cent per gallon tax on gasoline and a 24.4 cent per gallon tax on diesel, which has not been raised since 1993. Inflation has cut its real value by 40%. Congress has relied on transferring general funds into the HTF to prop it up ($140 billion since 2008) instead of fixing its underlying revenue problem.

The most direct and immediate way to #FixTheTrustFund is to increase the tax on gas and diesel fuel to stop the need for general fund transfers and allow for increased investment to address the backlog and modernize the system. Meanwhile, there should be additional pilot programs to test charging motorists based on how much they use roads with the long-term goal of using mileage-based user fees to fund the HTF. While it is not as exciting as robot cars, fixing our nation’s infrastructure through a long-term sustainable funding solution is the gateway to successfully implementing innovations like autonomous vehicles.

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