OPINION: The challenges of CAVs and how we might begin to overcome them

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Matt D’Angelo PE, Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) practice leader at architecture and engineering consultancy Gresham Smith, gives his insight into the evolving world of connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) and gives his opinion on how we might overcome some of the challenges that lie ahead – from public acceptance to 5.9Ghz spectrum sharing.

If you’re predicting an automated vehicle takeover anytime soon, you might want to think again! The truth is, the world of automated transport and a network of talking cars is an extremely dynamic environment. And it can leave infrastructure owners scratching their heads when it comes to predicting the direction that we appear to be heading in with connected and automated vehicles, which are often, and not-quite-accurately, grouped together as CAVs.

Although that acronym might evoke images of cute baby cows, it actually refers to two very different applications of technology, each bearing different implications for both drivers and infrastructure owners.

In this post, I explore some key factors that infrastructure owners need to keep an eye on when it comes to the state of the vehicle connectivity and automation industries – two diverse industries that are progressing along distinct market maturity paths.

The connected vehicle and automated vehicle markets are evolving along two different paths and have different market forces behind them. And although there is a complementary nature between the two, they represent distinctly different opportunities for infrastructure owners when deciding if they should make an investment or take a backseat (pun sort of intended). Here are some key things we advise our clients to be mindful of:

Public confidence is essential
It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just about the underlying technology when it comes to automated vehicles. As there is still widespread public distrust and a general lack of confidence about giving up control of our vehicles, there is an all-important public acceptance component that needs to be considered. This has an enormous influence on the consumer market uptake of being willing to pay for these types of services.

No matter how good the technology, it is ‘dead on arrival’ if the public won’t trust it and pay for it. This represents a significant opportunity for the infrastructure owner to shape public acceptance, as public agencies are often considered more trustworthy than a commercial provider.

It is critically important, however, to go into this with your eyes wide-open. If you plan to facilitate or promote the public’s use of automation technology on your infrastructure, it is worth considering a process to give you confidence in any technology provider you introduce to the public. And that will likely take more than a simple demonstration or a sales pitch, and can be a tricky road to navigate as you can expect a constant stream of software patches and hardware swaps as these systems grow in capability.

Responses to a poll fielded by AAA regarding the public’s willingness to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. Source: AAA survey

Navigating the Regulatory Environment
Regulatory decisions have the potential to slow things down. In the United States, there are certain policy decisions that are historically deferred to the individual states to implement as opposed to being regulated at a federal level. Driver licensing is one example. But if the driver is not a person, the historical precedent does not serve us well. If each state is doing something different, commercial interest will dwindle as technology companies and their investors expect solutions that can be sold anywhere. In the case of vehicle manufacturers that often means globally.

To build a commercially viable product, industry is advocating for a consistent set of rules. As policymakers, it is very challenging to establish rules at this point, as we are still sorting through the ramifications of how automation is changing transport. As a result, many states have taken a hands-off approach, and the federal government is systemically evaluating current regulatory requirements, issuing periodic guidance in partnership with industry. This will likely continue to be an iterative process, so stay tuned!

Opening up the band?
If you and I speak a different language and tried to have a conversation, we would obviously be faced with an instant communication barrier. The same thing can be said for connectivity and vehicles understanding one another. Over the past 20 years, the US had been heading down a path where we knew what that language would be, which was Dedicated Short-Range Communication – or DSRC – a wireless communication technology that enables highly secure, high-speed direct communication between vehicles and surrounding infrastructure. Much like FM radios, satellite navigation and Wi-Fi, DSRC was designated to operate using a very specific part of the wireless spectrum. We call this the safety band.

However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now proposing to reallocate how the safety spectrum is used, largely repurposing it for other commercial uses. This has created an uncertainty in the industry regarding what common language will be used going forward in order to share this safety-critical information across vehicles and infrastructure. In addition to this potential regulatory change, a competing cellular technology (C-V2X) has proponents who are introducing other connectivity products to the market.

Source: Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office

These developments are particularly important for an infrastructure owner who is trying to write specifications and purchase equipment that defines how traffic signals are going to communicate with vehicles. To do so, you need to know the ‘playbook’ and the language that is going to be used. Specifications are typically developed during the design process, which often predates the actual purchase of the equipment by a year or more. Unfortunately, DSRC and C-V2X are not compatible and we don’t have a translator yet. An infrastructure owner may choose to provide both, which increases the cost of equipment and long-term maintenance.

This potential change is perhaps the most important near-term decision to watch out for in terms of influencing how quickly vehicles communicate with one another. There is currently overwhelming opposition from infrastructure owners to the FCC’s actions, which would open up the band to unlicensed Wi-Fi users, urging that the band be retained for transportation safety.

Those who champion the FCC’s proposed change, including many major technology companies, argue that the band can be repurposed to meet other needs more quickly, such as Wi-Fi service to underserved rural communities who don’t enjoy the same access to broadband networking as our cities.

Regardless of what side of the argument you identify with, uncertainty slows down how quickly we can bring the safety benefits of connectivity to the traveling public. The FCC will be reviewing industry feedback and then decide how they will move forward. We, of course, will be staying on top of this and keeping our clients posted.

Looking to the Future

Ultimately, automation and connectivity come with tremendous potential and a tremendous number of unknowns. What we can forecast is that it’s coming, and in a way that transforms the way we think about transport. And not just our own personal transport, but potentially how freight is moved across the country, how transit and mobility on-demand services operate, and how we meet the mobility needs of our communities.

As infrastructure solution providers, it forces us to consider a key question: How does a world that has more and more automation and connectivity change the way we make decisions? Perhaps that is food for thought for the next blog post. Let’s stay connected!

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About Author

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs in charge of public agencies around the world as well as chairmen and CEOs of multinational transportation technology corporations. Tom's early career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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