Q&A: Connected and Automated Vehicle Technologies

June 30, 2017

Matt-Smith-(1).jpgMatt Smith, Michael Baker’s National Connected and Automated Vehicle Program Manager, discusses how to support the deployment of new technologies to enhance traffic safety, efficiency and capacity

Q. How did you first get involved with Connected and Autonomous Vehicles?

I started out my career as a traffic engineer, working in the consulting industry. This experience gave me a strong foundation in safety and operations. From there, I had a fantastic opportunity to work with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) as the Metro Region Traffic and Safety Engineer in the Detroit area. At that time, the Traffic and Safety program included the region’s Intelligent Transportation System and Traffic Operations Center, which in addition to providing in-depth exposure to ITS, also introduced me to Connected Vehicles. During my time there, I was fortunate to be a part of the first deployment of Connected Vehicle infrastructure (DSRC-based) in the country as part of the USDOT’s Proof of Concept test.

For the last six years, I have had the great honor of leading MDOT’s overall ITS program. Through the vision of the Department’s leadership, MDOT’s ITS Program included significant investment in a connected vehicle program, which included substantial time developing partnerships with the automobile industry, technology and communications industries, and our peer transportation agencies both within the state and across the country (notably facilitated through AASHTO).

I’m excited to be able to see what started primarily in Michigan begin to take hold across the country.

Q. The public has been hearing a lot about Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CV/AV) lately. What is the best way to explain what this emerging technology is and where it stands today?

Connected Vehicles and Autonomous Vehicles are really two different systems. Connected vehicles use real-time communications between vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure, such as traffic signals, to supplement driver information and provide immediate warnings of safety hazards to drivers. Connected vehicle systems are not intended to directly “take over” functions of the driver.  

An automated vehicle, on the other hand, is a highly intelligent vehicle system that uses a heightened “awareness” of its immediate surroundings to provide for a safe driving environment and assume certain driving functions. Future systems will take over more and more of the driving functions, until eventually you have truly driverless vehicles.

In reality, these two concepts (connected vehicles and automated vehicles) are not mutually exclusive; automated vehicles will be connected, providing for a much more capable and practical system by allowing communications with other vehicles and with infrastructure.

We may not realize it, but many people are already experiencing automated or connected vehicle systems. Manufacturers are producing vehicles right now that include elements of autonomous and connected vehicle systems, such as adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist systems, and parking assist systems.
Q. What are the benefits of these new systems?

One of the primary benefits of these systems is that we will have a much safer driving environment. Between 35,000 and 40,000 people die in traffic crashes in the United States every year, despite aggressive efforts to address traffic safety concerns. Most of these crashes are caused by human error and lack of judgement. These technologies promise to reduce the amount of traffic fatalities by providing significantly more information to the driver and to the vehicle, to assist with driver functions, and eventually provide an option to safely assume complex driving tasks. The deployment of these technologies will go a long way in helping us get closer to the ultimate goal of zero traffic fatalities.

These technologies also have the potential to substantially improve mobility for all segments of the population, especially those that can’t drive for a variety of reasons.

Q. Why are these technological advancements important to public agencies?

The future of automated vehicles lies partly in the ability of vehicles to communicate with each other – and with surrounding infrastructure. Communicating with infrastructure means getting information into vehicles that are related to infrastructure features, such as signal phasing and timing, construction and work zone information, and weather-related road surface conditions.

Infrastructure is primarily the domain of public agencies, as such, they play a key role in the success of connected and automated vehicles. Information that transportation agencies already use or have access to can help future automated vehicles operate much more intelligently.

Q. What role do you see the FHWA and city and state DOTs playing in the development and deployment of C/AVs? What can they start working on now?

While transportation agencies and transportation infrastructure owners and operators (IOOs) don’t build automated vehicle systems, there is a significant role for agencies to play in facilitating the Connected Vehicle environment. A successful Connected Vehicle system needs several different components: vehicles; infrastructure; a communications network; back-end / data processing systems; and business processes to take advantage of the systems.

Focusing on a robust communications network, preparing internal business practices to leverage the benefits of a connected vehicle environment, and investing in mature application developments could be the best approach for transportation agencies to follow. If all an agency can do is just follow and keep up-to-date on the development and implementation of the technology, they can be prepared to leverage future developments.

Q. What existing assets can public agencies leverage to facilitate the deployment of C/AVs?

Vehicles! Most transportation agencies have direct access to hundreds, if not thousands, of agency vehicles. Equipping these vehicles to be part of a connected vehicle environment can help “jump start” the system and develop rich data sets as the basis for new applications. Existing communications systems used for traffic signal and traffic management systems can also be used as the backbone of a connected vehicle environment. If a robust, existing, communications network exists, the process of leveraging two-way data flows between vehicles and the infrastructure becomes an easier proposition.

Q. How should DOTs, automakers, technology development companies, and big data companies work together to enable CV/AV deployment?

The infrastructure and business process components that will enable autonomous and connected vehicles should be something most IOOs can adapt to pretty quickly; these are already core functions of most agencies. However, the other components require the development of partnerships that are not necessarily “traditional” for transportation agencies. Close cooperation with the automobile industry, technology development companies, and data management and analytic companies are all needed to make this work; for most agencies, these aren’t “core partners” or “core functions” that they have traditionally worked with, so there is a lot of new ground to cover.

Q. DOTs are in the business of building, maintaining and managing a vast transportation network. These new transportation systems represent a learning curve for DOTs requiring new knowledge, skills and abilities. With how quickly CV/AV is evolving, how can transportation agencies adjust to this workforce development need?

This is definitely a question that will have to be grappled with by all agencies. There is no doubt that continued budget pressure in most transportation agencies will not only impact the adoption of new technology but also the ability to hire personnel with the skillsets needed to support these advanced transportation environments. Many of the skillsets needed in a Connected and Automated Vehicle environment do not represent the core functions of most transportation agencies. Systems engineers, network engineers, data managers and analysts, and application developers possess the requisite skills needed to ensure that these systems work. Agencies will need to make strategic determinations on whether they will go down the path to expand and enhance their workforce and include these services as core services, or whether they will have to develop and leverage partnerships in order to achieve some of these functions.

In the meantime, transportation agencies should support the introduction of advanced transportation technologies into their educational programs. Fostering an interest in this technology can help us develop the highly skilled workforce that we will need. There are several great resources and examples out there of how this technology can be introduced in schools; transportation agencies should certainly take advantage of many of these educational opportunities to promote the future of these systems.

Q. My budget is stretched thin. How can I pay for this?

One immediate answer is the ongoing competition for federal grant opportunities. While these can provide a boost for initial deployments, these grants may not be appropriate for maintaining a sustainable system. The benefits of these systems can be leveraged to take advantage of some existing funding programs, such as Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality programs, and Safety programs. There also may be opportunities to develop partnerships and business models that can leverage the value of some of these system components, such as communications networks and data sets.

Q. What resources are available to further my agency’s knowledge of CV/AV?

Transportation agencies and DOTs should not have to wade into the Connected and Automated Vehicle realm without having substantial knowledge of what has happened to date. Fortunately, there are some great resources out there, since a lot of DOTs have been working in this arena for a while. AASHTO facilitates the V2I (Vehicle-to-Infrastructure) Deployment coalition, and shares many resources through their partner organization, the National Operations Center of Excellence. The USDOT ITS Joint Program Office also includes a trove of information on the progress of Connected Vehicle systems.