Years ago, a popular daily cartoon showed a noble knight riding into a joust, pennants flying, lance up and ready, but with a hand over his eyes. It was funny, but also a bit profound, as we too often take on noble aims without a clear view of the challenges ahead, sometimes with serious consequences.
Today, the transportation industry is pursuing noble goals with highway automation: increased safety, lower pollution, and cost savings for local and national governments. As the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has noted, along with the potential benefits, automation also creates "uncertainty for the agencies responsible for the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the roadway infrastructure." To address that uncertainty, the agency has been hosting a series of meetings all year called National Dialogue on Highway Automation, billed as a national conversation between transportation partners, stakeholders, and the public at-large. The aim is to identify key issues and prepare for safe, efficient introduction of automated vehicles into the national transportation system. Kudos to the FHWA for riding into the future with their hands off their eyes and welcoming everyone who can contribute to highway automation solutions.
The first, highly publicized crashes and fatalities involving automated vehicles have highlighted the potential risks of vehicle automation. Clearly, more work is needed before these vehicles become commonplace on our roads. But human drivers also make mistakes, and we would expect the safety performance of automated vehicles to improve before their use becomes widespread. We believe the larger danger ahead lies with infrastructure. When thousands or hundreds of thousands of automated vehicles are relying on traffic signals, navigation systems, traffic information systems, and other parts of the transportation infrastructure in order to operate safely, what happens if any part of that system malfunctions or fails? Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) are becoming mission-critical, and before we ask passengers and pedestrians to rely on automated vehicles, we need to ensure that the underlying systems are as safe and dependable as we can make them, from exhaustive testing before deployment to system redundancy and reliable backup power.
Highway automation will only achieve its worthy goals if we also consider its risks with eyes wide open. To that end, we encourage everyone who can attend to become part of the National Dialogue on Highway Automation. The workshop on Infrastructure Design and Safety is coming up November 14th and 15th in Dallas, Texas. Sign up and we hope to see you there.