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Tolling Points

How Tolling Will Enable Driverless Cars

By: 
Bill Cramer

It’s a natural part of the product development life cycle.

At some point, just as the buzz around an exciting, highly visible new innovation hits a crescendo, people begin to spot complications along the road to success. They’re complications, not necessarily fatal flaws, but it means someone will have to sweat the details.

It should come as no surprise that connected and autonomous vehicles have reached that point, judging by research released last month by a team from the University of Leeds, University of Washington, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Or that the hidden complication—the added wear and tear on roads—points back to tolling as an essential tool in the highway infrastructure funding toolbox.

The Pace Picks Up

Connected and autonomous vehicles have been all the rage in transportation and “tech geekery” circles since 2012, when Google introduced its initial fleet of six driverless cars. By August of that year, the online news site Mashable was declaring the Google vehicle safer than the average driver.

That was when the Silicon Valley tech giant announced “that its self-driving cars have completed 300,000 miles of test-drives, under a ‘wide range of conditions,’ all without any kind of accident,” as correspondent Chris Taylor wrote at the time. “To put that into perspective, the average U.S. driver has one accident roughly every 165,000 miles.”

(Highway semantics question: Transportation professionals know that no collision is ever an accident. If the rule still applies when there’s no driver behind the wheel, doesn’t that put more onus on highway operators to keep their roads in safe, serviceable condition?)

Nearly four years later, enthusiasm for the technology is so widespread that its proponents are unfazed, even when a collision does take place. After a Google SUV pulled out into traffic and hit a bus earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the crash was to be expected.

“It’s not a surprise that at some point there would be a crash of any technology that’s on the road,” he told the trendy South by Southwest conference in Austin. “But I would challenge one to look at the number of crashes that occurred on the same day that were the result of human behavior.”

That’s fair enough: No technology is absolutely flawless, and tolling executives like Joe Waggoner of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority are still sold on connected and autonomous vehicles, with their promise of greater safety, higher traffic volumes (with jarringly short following distances between platooned vehicles), and reduced congestion.

But there’s another, bigger crash ahead that will take a bit more thought and effort to work out.

Sweating the Details

The Leeds-Washington-ORNL study set out to model the impact of automation on highway energy use through 2050. It cited several factors that could significantly boost vehicle efficiency—like computer-directed driving styles, improved traffic flow, platooning of automated vehicles, reduced crash risk, and less preoccupation with vehicle performance when buyers hit the showroom floor.

“But the study also predicts that the very attractiveness of self-driving technology could reduce or even outweigh the efficiency gains, ITS International reports. “Researchers warn that driverless vehicles could intensify car use,” adding that the technology’s “actual impact may be complicated by how the technology changes our relationship with our cars.”

In particular, the study points to a five to 60% increase in energy consumption “due to people choosing to use highly automated cars in situations where they would have previously taken alternative transport such as trains or planes,” plus another two to 10% for seniors or people with disabilities who would otherwise have been unable to drive.

A switch from diesel-powered rail and fossil-fuelled aircraft to an increasingly electrified highway fleet would actually be great news for air quality and the climate. But the analysis raises two blazingly obvious questions for anyone who’s ever tried to balance a highway maintenance budget:

Who will pay for all of that added wear and tear?

And how well will those connected and autonomous vehicles perform if our roads are deteriorating faster, due to a dramatic increase in traffic volume?

Paying for Nice Things

Who knows? Maybe the unbounded enthusiasm for driverless cars will open a new golden age in highway funding, with legislators happily loosening the purse strings as their constituents cheer on the latest gas tax increase.

Then again, maybe not.

What’s certain is that, if the new technology is about to kindle a new generation’s connection to car culture, our highways will have to be ready to handle the volume. The last time America set out to build a highway system to enable a national revolution in mobility, tolling was a central part of the funding package. As the next stage of that revolution takes shape, it’s time for a serious conversation about how we pay for the nice things we want.

Concerned about highway wear and tear? Click here for information on IBTTA’s 2016 Maintenance and Roadway Operations workshop, May 15-17, 2016 in Newport, RI.

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