Self-driving cars once seemed the stuff of science fiction. But with such projects from companies like Google already being showcased in Texas, lawmakers and transportation officials see an opportunity to use new technology to relieve congestion and improve safety in the rapidly growing state.
"We have limited funding and ever-increasing demand for services," said Shannon Crum, director of research and technology for the Texas Department of Transportation. "Congestion is getting worse. People are moving to the state every day."
New technologies allowing vehicles to collect and transmit data about road conditions are preparing to move from the lab to the street. A report released last week by the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Transportation Research examined the opportunity such technology provides and the regulatory hurdles it faces, and it stressed the need for the state to consider partnering with the private sector on certain initiatives.
“We have a unique opportunity for the state to explore this technology further,” said Mike Walton, a UT-Austin civil engineering professor who supervised the report, which was commissioned by TxDOT. "In the near future, I'd like to think that we have set up a situation where the private sector and public sector have agreed on some pilot studies."
Anticipating both the great potential of emerging transportation technologies and the risks associated with them, Texas lawmakers in the 2013 session commissioned a task force to forecast the future of technology used on Texas roads. But with TxDOT's budget so tight that even upkeep of existing infrastructure proves difficult, many transportation experts are looking to public-private partnerships to implement new technology safely and efficiently.
“The private sector owns the way we get about, and the public sector owns the infrastructure,” Walton said. “The two have got to work together to get out of the dilemma that we’re currently in.” The report calls on TxDOT to establish a productive “test environment,” in which developers from the private sector could test their new technology on roadways without legal obstacles.
Among the emerging technologies explored by the report is a connected vehicle system, in which vehicles on the road share data about location and driving conditions with other vehicles and public entities. The innovation could help local planners reduce traffic jams and improve safety. Special charging systems could one day allow for electric cars to be recharged as they travel on a roadway. Some technologies, like a cellphone app that could alert TxDOT when a driver runs over a pothole, are already technically viable, according to Crum.
"The technology's out there," she said. "We don't do it."
But it is more fledgling technologies, like self-driving vehicles, that “have the potential for the greatest long-term safety benefits," according to the report. For now, they remain too expensive for widespread implementation in Texas, but the Society of Automotive Engineers has predicted they could hit the roads by 2025.
They also exist in a kind of legal gray area, as the Texas transportation code refers only to people driving vehicles, not vehicles driving themselves. “There will have to be some guidelines, if not legal principles, established to help protect individuals and protect manufacturers and technology providers,” Walton said of autonomous cars, adding that privacy concerns about data collected from drivers fall into a similar category of concerns.
Along with state agencies, individual drivers will also have to adapt to new technology. Self-driving cars and other futuristic developments could give some passengers pause. As the report notes, “The technologies and applications that show the greatest promise also largely warrant the greatest concern.”
But technology enthusiasts maintain that future vehicles will make their passengers safer. There were 3,399 people who lost their lives on Texas roads in 2012, according to TxDOT, representing an 11 percent increase in fatalities from the previous year. The report’s authors expect emerging technologies to lower accident rates.
“We know that there are huge crash savings to be had,” Walton said.