Using the future to inform the now

May 16, 2016

Scenario-based roadmapping and a path to the future

It is 2025, and a series of disruptive innovations in the auto industry has led to a critical mass of self-driving vehicles traveling on U.S. roadways.

This future is merely speculative; it is plausible. So too, is a future of gradual and incremental technological evolutions, wherein a critical mass of automated and connected vehicles (AVs and CVs) is not reached until 2050.

Trying to predict what will actually happen in today’s dynamic environment is at best challenging. The answer is probably somewhere in between the two extremes. While AV and CV technologies are still on their respective paths to full deployment, they do have implications for state and local transportation agencies now. What strategies can these agencies begin implementing today to help them function effectively no matter what the future brings?

A recent study undertaken at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) addresses this question by formulating scenarios for AV and CV paths of deployment, using the scenarios as the foundation for interviews with state and local transportation agencies on implications and impacts, and surfacing strategies to prepare for potential issues.

Deployment scenarios

Two scenarios were developed through literature search and expert workshops: a Revolutionary Path and an Evolutionary Path. The scenarios were developed with consideration of a full complement of influencing factors (e.g., societal, technology, economic and policy), and the interactions and interrelationships between these factors shaped the two alternative scenarios. These scenarios represent two extremes, in that they frame the edges of the ways in which AV/CV technology may develop in the future. Together the scenarios represent a spectrum of possibilities, which are useful for policy setting and planning activities. In the TTI report, the scenarios run 3-4 pages in length. They are here summarized.

In the Revolutionary path, self-driving vehicles are present on the roads in significant numbers by 2025. Automotive manufacturers (original equipment manufacturers [OEMs]), suppliers and technology firms make disruptive and aggressive R&D investments that accelerate progress in AV and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technologies. Federal and state policies do not hinder development but vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology gets stalled in political and financial debates. The private sector pushes the vehicle-centric applications, and consumer demand is strong.

In the Evolutionary path, significant numbers of self-driving vehicles are not present on roads until around 2050. OEMs and suppliers achieve step-wise improvements in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), but making the leap from limited self-driving automation to fully self-driving vehicles proves very challenging. Higher levels of automation pose policy, regulatory and technical problems at the national and state levels that are slow to resolve. Deployment of CV technologies also bogs down as regulators try to settle on minimum standards.

Agency reactions

Researchers presented the two opposing scenarios to a small cross-section of state and local transportation agency leaders and technical experts to elicit their reactions and to surface the implications. A total of 20 interviews were completed. While this represents a small sample of leading agencies, the findings provide insight into current and future challenges and opportunities pertaining to AV/CV technologies. (Editor’s note: The pull quotes couched within this story are examples of interviewee statements from this point in the described process.)

By small margins, state DOT interviewees thought the Evolutionary scenario most likely and most preferred. The main reason it was preferred was that it would be less disruptive for the agencies. There were varying reasons for the perception that the Evolutionary scenario would be most likely. One theme that was raised often was that government would have to be involved, and the associated policy, rules and regulations would slow down AV/CV deployment. There was a clear sense that regulatory change would occur on an evolutionary path. Another theme was that the iPhone model of quick disruptive technology may not apply to AV/CV. With the latter, there is a lot of more complexity with institutional barriers, safety considerations and other social issues, such as privacy concerns. Some of the implementation issues identified were mapping issues, existence and reliability of connectivity, liability and insurance, and ensuring safety during the transition period when mixed traffic fleets (i.e., automated and non-automated) were on the roadways.

Some of the state DOT staff interviewees regarded the Revolutionary scenario as more likely. Their rationales focused on a “technology push.” They felt that OEMs and technology firms would push AV/CV to the market regardless of whether or not there was an actual market demand for the technology. Some state DOT interviewees felt that the economic rationale for quick and early adoption would differ among certain industry sectors.

There also were a few state DOT interviewees who felt strongly that AV and CV would follow different paths. For AV, the most likely scenario was the Revolutionary scenario as AV is private-sector driven and technological developments in the private sector commonly outpace the public sector. For CV, the most likely scenario was the Evolutionary scenario because its deployment was within the purview of the public sector. In addition, currently there is not a strong business model, therefore investment in CV technology would be more cautious and slow.

Unlike state DOT interviewees, most local and regional transportation agencies interviewed preferred the Revolutionary scenario and considered it most likely. The rationale was that if the private sector pushes this quickly, they would bring financial resources. A few pointed to the fact that certain transportation sectors would “jump on this very quickly.” Such early applications would most likely target fleets (e.g., taxi, trucking, package delivery companies) rather than personal vehicles, due to sufficient economic rationale from early adoption.

AV/CV expectations

The Evolutionary scenario would deploy relatively slowly, which may help public-sector agencies adapt. However, interviewees noted there would still be operational, organizational and fiscal challenges, particularly since they are not sure what the private sector expects from their agencies in terms of infrastructure support. The major implication of the Revolutionary scenario was that public agencies would need to react very quickly to what is actually happening rather than being able to take the time to examine what could happen. Among specific issues raised were: how it might change long-term investment strategies and how the transition period, when mixed traffic was on the road, would work. Both scenarios caused interviewees to question the preparedness of their workforce.

Many interviewees viewed CV implementation as following an intelligent transportation system (ITS) implementation model, which has been characterized nationally as slow and spotty. Interviewees thought the public sector has more responsibility and control in the CV realm. The OEMs are perceived as still having a role in the CV realm, but will be more prominent in V2V than in V2I. For this reason, there is greater certainty among the interviewees that V2V will happen. On the other hand, there was uncertainty about if and how V2I would deploy, mainly because of the costs of implementation.

With AV technology—whether evolutionary or revolutionary—the perception among state and local agencies is that deployment is driven by the OEMs and the technology firms. Consumer demand may place AVs on public roadways while the regulatory and policy issues are still being worked out.

Potential organizational structure changes

Even though our interview sample represented organizations that were known to have taken an interest in AV/CV, none of the organizations indicated that there was a specific position in the agency that deals with the topic. Most indicated that there was a point person on technology issues, which includes AV/CV, but no one dedicated solely to the specific topic. Several of our interviewees mentioned that they were the designated AV/CV person in the organization because they were just interested in the topic. Many said the focus was at the middle-management level and not “high up in the organization.”

Recognizing that future implementation of AV/CV technologies may cause institutional changes within state, local and regional transportation agencies, the participants were asked to respond to the question, “How might the mission, responsibilities and organizational structure of your agency evolve under this scenario?”

The consensus of interviewees from both state DOTs and local and regional agencies was that the mission of their organizations would not change and that the benefits of AV/CV would aid them in accomplishing their current stated mission.

While a few agencies are in a “wait-and-see” mode in terms of changes in responsibilities, many interviewees noted potential changes. For instance, there could be a substantive shift in organizational focus from what they described as “the big three”—design, construction and maintenance—to operations. An exception is the maintenance of pavement markings and signage, which will become much more critical with AV/CV implementation.

Significant responsibilities would arise in the area of data management, including collecting data, storing data and analyzing data. The skill sets for traffic engineers, operations staff and field technicians would have to change, with associated costs for training. All of these changes will affect a dynamic shift in how resources are allocated.

Safety will always be a critical element in their organizations but the anticipated safety benefits of AVs and CVs could allow agencies to focus more on other things.

There were two schools of thought pertaining to changes in organization structure. There were those who felt that major organizational changes would not occur due to AV/CV implementation versus those who thought a new division would have to be developed that is devoted to this new concept. The latter thought it could not be buried in ITS or operations, while the former thought that tweaks of existing groups might be all that would be necessary.

Preparing for AV/CV deployment

What is clear in the interviews conducted for this study is the fact that people recognize the present as a particularly dynamic and rapidly changing environment. Trying to predict the future so that today’s decisions will meet future needs is at best challenging. Given where we are today with AV/CV technologies, there are strategies that surfaced in our interviews that would be robust over a wide range of alternative futures. State and local transportation agencies could begin implementing these strategies now, to help them function effectively, no matter what surprises the future brings. A successful AV/CV implementation strategy might include any of all of the following elements:

A review of legislation and policies in place that could potentially impact the implementation of AV/CV technologies. For example, some states have found that there were laws and/or policies in place that would prohibit driverless technology, and have taken steps to address them.

The designation of a specific individual within the organization who has responsibility for AV/CV. If one person is responsible for implementing and managing the overall program, it creates one contact point for a program likely to involve numerous internal and external organizations. This is important for coordination and communication between stakeholders.

Participation in the national discussion on AV/CV. This may include such groups as the V2I Deployment Coalition (led by ITS America, AASHTO, ITE and the FHWA), the AASHTO Connected Vehicle Task Force (made up of state DOTs and two Canadian provinces), and CV pooled fund initiatives. Active participation can help agencies stay up to date on developments in the field, aid in networking and building a community, and help avoid duplicative efforts.

The establishment of a working relationship with resources in the state or region with useful expertise, such as universities, UTCs, and national laboratories. They can be useful for information gathering, planning and strategic efforts, and assistance with early applications in the state/region. This has proven to be a successful model for several interviewees in this study.

The establishment of an internal group made up of people in affected groups across the organization to develop a strategic plan or roadmap for implementation. These groups may include representation from management, operations, ITS, design, data management/IT, maintenance and others within the organization.

Establishment of an external group of stakeholders to assist in identifying and addressing issues and to serve as a sounding board for strategic plans/roadmaps. These stakeholders may include DOT representation, state and regional agencies, the private sector/OEMs, and universities and national labs. It is important for the success of strategic planning that it not be done in silos according to individual stakeholders, with each addressing its own interests only.

Outreach to state and local policy makers to familiarize and educate regarding AV/CV. Given competing priorities it is important to get AV/CV on policymakers’ radar screens. Furthermore, there is much misinformation about the advent of these technologies that could lead to misinformed decisions regarding future investment decisions.

Competition for federal deployment funding to gain “boots on the ground” experience, and development of a workforce development plan. Skill sets will change for professionals within the DOT (including operations, IT and data management) as well as field personnel, and identifying a plan for meeting new requirements will help the agency adapt.

The formulation of a strategy to address the financial challenges of implementation. This strategy may include how AV/CV would help with economic competitiveness and increased operational efficiency, as well as the more intuitive safety and environmental benefits. It would be advantageous to connect with private sector on economic development opportunities, and to be intentional about early deployment opportunities in the city, region and/or state.

About The Author: Zmud, Tooley, Wagner and Baker are with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

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