Automakers Winning Push for AV-Only Road Networks

As autonomous vehicle developers strive to design mission critical, the idea of an AV corridor is finally gaining acceptance as the right step forward.

Carmakers have for years been pushing for dedicated infrastructure to refine AV technology away from the influence and dangers posed by mixing the robots with human drivers. While the digital influencers of Silicon Valley have tried to argue against this cautious approach, it looks like the automakers’ grasp on reality is finally winning the debate.

In Michigan, plans have been announced to potentially introduce a 40-mile driverless vehicle corridor. Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer, said: “We need to determine how we really fully realize the benefits of autonomous vehicles, not only from a safety but, from an investment standpoint, in order to support full Level 5 autonomy: what physical investments need to be made, and what connecting, mapping and digital infrastructure needs to be in place.”

He said the state is trying to acknowledge that you can’t just make the cars safer, you need to build the road of the future, including aspects like advanced sensor technology and coordinated traffic lights. “We’re going to live in a mixed traffic scenario for a number of years, and this is the opportunity to hone in on the safety potential of the technologies,” Pawl said.

Collin Castle, ITS program manager at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) explained the idea is not “plop down” a 40-mile corridor instantaneously but rather through an incremental rollout, perhaps in a low-speed boulevard setting at first. “We’re going to have an opportunity to test technologies at a certain level within a more controlled environment,” he said. “It’s not just a study with a dedicated right of way for 40 miles, it’s about understanding the needs of the industry from an infrastructure perspective, be it higher reflectivity of signs or wider lanes.”

Gartner transportation and mobility analyst Michael Ramsey noted that while he’s on board with the idea of an extensive testing corridor like the one Michigan has planned, the whole concept of a dedicated corridor is in some way providing only a limited version of reality. “One of the biggest problems is that the people will be dangerous, not the robots,” he said. “It’s going to be a bit of challenge to make these things work in general but it’s an interesting stretch of road, which has some positives. It’s a very heavily trafficked area between two cities with an airport in between.”

He noted one of the benefits of a corridor approach is it gives the public a chance to get used to the idea of AVs operating in the public realm, while another is the ability to install and test monitoring systems. “I think it’s a good concept but, in practice, what’s going to result from this? How does the roadside infrastructure, in communication with these machines, reduce accidents or improve response times? From that perspective, an experiment is valuable for those goals.”

An Audi spokesperson from the company’s Governmental Affairs department also noted the importance of real-world testing, noting a corridor type of environment is something the company would take into consideration when choosing states in which to test their own technologies. “Having more real-world type places to test are important. A closed track is also something you have to go through but getting out there is the most important, ultimate goal,” the spokesperson said. “It’s really a positive development that states want to provide good testing opportunities and environments.”

It was also noted that Michigan provides an important advantage in being able to offer four full blown seasons and the accompanying weather conditions. “Generally, it’s about validating all your systems and technologies, and constantly testing for edge cases. When AVs scale, they have to be able to handle any type of weather,” the Audi spokesperson explained. “The more testing that occurs, the more encounters you have, and how you modify a system to recognize what just happened. That’s the whole point of getting out and doing the testing.”

Ransey concluded: “The idea of creating a real corridor for testing and deployment, to educate consumers and try out a major corridor of movement, that’s good, because it’s got to launch somewhere.”

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