From Knight Rider’s car to the Batmobile, automated vehicles have long been a fixture in popular culture. As companies like Google, Tesla and Uber experiment with automation, what was once science fiction may soon be a reality.
But before the highest levels of automation can be made available to the average consumer, the vehicles need to be tested. A recent designation by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has the potential to bring the Texas Medical Center to the forefront of testing innovative forms of transportation.
Given that Texas is the second most populous state in the country and home to five of the nation’s 11 fastest-growing cities, state leaders decided it was an ideal location for experimentation. Thirty-two municipal and regional partners in Texas joined three research institutions—Texas A&M University, The University of Texas at Austin and Southwest Research Institute—to form the Texas AV (Automated Vehicle) Proving Ground Partnership. At the beginning of 2017, the partnership was selected by the DOT as one of 10 testing regions.
Each of the institutions is already studying various aspects of vehicle automation, which is likely part of what made the Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership attractive to the DOT: it encompasses the full ecosystem of vehicle automation research, testing and implementation.
“We can take automated vehicle research coming out of our three research entities and migrate it to pilots and demonstrations in real-world urban test sites around Texas,” said Christopher Poe, Ph.D., assistant director of connected and automated transportation strategy at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Among the 32 partners is a group known as Team Houston, which consists of Houston-area institutions, including METRO Houston, Port of Houston and the Texas Medical Center (TMC).
“We understand this will take significant involvement from the private sector, and we want to attract that business to Houston and to the state of Texas,” said Lauren Cochran, director of innovation at METRO and one of the leaders of Team Houston. She added that the TMC was of particular interest due to “the volume of people who work there and the transit that exists in that corridor. That kind of urban environment, we think, would be good for testing low-speed automated technologies.”
Some of those technologies could include automation that enables first responders to travel more easily and quickly in emergency situations, Poe noted, which would be valuable in the largest medical center in the world.
“Emergency vehicles could use the technology to broadcast that they are approaching directly to vehicle drivers, giving them earlier warnings to move out of the way. Or, with more fully automated vehicles, they could be programmed to pull to the right,” Poe said. “More detailed information could be shared between vehicles to help responders navigate through traffic.”
Multiple levels of automation
While the words “automated vehicle” may bring to mind the image of a car or bus hurtling down the highway without a driver, there are multiple levels of automation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has outlined six levels, ranging from zero, meaning the driver is fully in control, to five, which refers to a vehicle that “can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.”
Some vehicles on the market are semi-autonomous, possessing the technology to assist drivers with tasks such as parking or braking quickly if an obstacle appears suddenly in the road. But no automaker currently offers a consumer vehicle with level 5 autonomy. At the end of 2016, however, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced he expects the company to be testing level 5 vehicles by the end of 2017 that can drive from “a home in L.A. to Times Square … without the need for a single touch, including charging.”
The driving force behind all levels of vehicle automation is safety. More than 30,000 people are killed in auto accidents each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number is rising.
“Automated vehicle technologies are designed to reduce the human error in crashes by helping to prevent accidents from vehicles running off the road, crashing into another vehicle or crashing into an obstacle,” Poe said.
Aside from improving safety, the Texas AV Proving Ground Partnership also wants to enhance high-capacity transit and solve what’s known as the “first and last mile” problem. This refers to the issues involved in getting commuters from their homes to transportation hubs and vice versa. As the distance to transportation hubs increases, the number of public transit users decreases.
“If we could use automation or autonomous shuttles to make those connections to transit, that would solve a challenge urbanized areas face,” Cochran said. This would both reduce the number of cars on Houston’s crowded roadways and make the city more accessible to people who don’t own cars or can’t afford them.
The first step toward bringing automated vehicles to the Texas Medical Center will be to assess how they can best contribute to efficiency, quality and safety of transportation in the area, said Abbey Roberson, TMC vice president of planning.
“What problem are we trying to solve and what opportunities do we see?” Roberson said. “From there, we’ll figure out the technologies we could potentially use to solve these problems and how to best team up with the private industry piloting those technologies.”
All of the 10 selected testing sites will offer guidance to the DOT on how to best test the new technology, Poe said. While the DOT did release an official policy in Sept. 2016 addressing automated vehicles, the field is changing swiftly and the department expects to make improvements and updates to the policy.
“The DOT is interested in the 10 regions giving guidance on what needs to be tested, how it should be tested, whether we need to develop consistent guidelines to cover all 50 states,” Poe said. “A lot of the first year will be spent developing those documents to guide this forward.”
While fully automated vehicles will not be taking over the roadways any time in the very near future, Roberson said the TMC is committed to remaining on the front lines of new technological developments.
“We have to always be thinking about how these opportunities with technology will impact us in the future,” she said. “In 15 years, will we all be using driverless cars? We don’t know the answer to that, but we have to be thinking about it, be progressive and make sure we consider these advancements as we make long-term decisions for our campus.”
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