MoDOT Grapples With Issues Related to Vehicle Automation

Tesla Self-Driving
Tesla Model S with self-driving technology by Andreas Arnold/Bloomberg

As the auto market becomes more saturated with electric vehicles and vehicles with automation capabilities, the Missouri Department of Transportation is grappling with the changes these types of vehicles present.

A lengthy section of MoDOT’s recently released Long Range Transportation Plan addresses various issues that have arisen over the past few years with the proliferation of advanced vehicle capabilities. Nearly every automaker has adopted at least some type of automation into the design of vehicles. Many have incorporated basic automation features, such as adaptive cruise control. Other makers such as Tesla Motors produce vehicles in which automation is a major appeal of the vehicle’s operation and can perform functions such as changing lanes.

“The overall impact and implementation timeframe of AV/CV [autonomous and connected vehicle] technology on Missouri’s transportation system and communities is uncertain,” the plan states. “However, what is known is that the technological changes are likely to happen faster than the ability of government to react to them, making it imperative that planning for those changes start now.”

The plan says that because of the quickening pace of vehicle changes, dramatic capital spending changes likely will be needed to keep up with the transportation adaptations. MoDOT devoted 27 pages of the 83-page plan to the potential ramifications of the changing auto industry.

One primary concern is the impact on revenue for the department. Missouri operates the seventh-largest road system in the country, but fuel taxes unchanged in 20 years and registration fees and sales tax unchanged since the 1980s make Missouri 46th in the nation in spending per mile. The state has had one of the lowest fuel taxes in the country for years, a source of debate as MoDOT has at times struggled to find funds to pay for needed maintenance and repairs. Missouri’s fuel tax is 17 cents per gallon, only equaled by Oklahoma. The purchase power of the fuel tax, though, has fallen in the 20 years since it was last changed.

The surge in electric vehicles has pinched the purse strings of the department further, as more consumers have turned to those types of vehicles instead of gasoline-fueled cars.

Tesla, for example, has constructed eight super chargers in Missouri, with four more expected to open by the end of the year.

It is one factor why MoDOT has in years prior switched to a strategy that sees dollars go to the more important maintenance and repair projects.

But beyond electric vehicles, automated vehicles pose another set of challenges for the department. There are few overarching guidelines on automated vehicles, making it difficult for MoDOT to respond to the growing number of vehicles on the road with those advanced functions.

The Long Range Transportation Plan indicates transportation departments will need to rethink policy.

Fact Sheet on Transportation Plan by Transport Topics on Scribd

“Timely and appropriate infrastructure policy and investment decisions should be tied to the adoption levels of highly automated and connected vehicles, among other factors,” the plan states.

Safety remains a big concern. For example, will striping technology need to change if the vehicle itself uses the road markings to guide the vehicles? What about changes in speed for work zones that aren’t easily tracked by the vehicle’s automation systems?

How do advancements in automation reflect on the fleet of vehicles MoDOT uses and training for employees?

MoDOT is looking at what other states have done to help shape policy around automated vehicles. The department, in its plan, might consider launching a pilot study, forming a steering committee or establishing an annual forum to explore automation topics.

While decisions have yet to be made, MoDOT says these issues must be addressed.

“The total impacts of AV/CV and other technologies on Missouri’s transportation system are uncertain, including when the changes will occur. However, it is important that MoDOT begins to consider these technologies and account for their requirements and impacts as part of the LRTP process,” according to the plan.

Comments are being accepted on the plan through May 4.

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