Professor Nick Reed, founder and CEO of Reed Mobility, gives his opinion on the need for public understanding and buy-in for any automated driving technology – an ethos underlined by the FHWA’s ConOps guidelines
In February 2023 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in the US published a document with the title, Roadway Automated Driving Systems Integration – Concept of Operations for Transportation Agencies: Version 1. Not the snappiest title (indeed it is shortened to ConOps) but potentially a big step forward for how road operators can gear up for connected and automated vehicles.
You may be asking yourself why such a document should feature in a column about human factors? The answer is simple and belies one of the secrets of how self-driving vehicles will eventually succeed and that is people. Of course, we will depend on engineering geniuses to program these vehicles, regulatory wizards to create the regulations to manage them, and infrastructure experts to ensure the roads and communications systems are ready.
“ConOps is not an endpoint but represents the start of local, state, federal and national collaboration in pursuit of common goals that self-driving technology may help to achieve”
However, the combined intellect of these groups will not be enough for self-driving vehicles to prevail. Examples such as nuclear power and smart motorways highlight the frictions that can emerge when innovations proceed out of step with public opinion.
Ultimately, connected and automated vehicle technologies cannot remain exclusively the domain of those experts listed but must persuade a much wider constituency of their value – and that is the significance of the FHWA ‘ConOps’ document. It breaks down complex technology developments into manageable chunks and accessible language, thereby setting out the pathway toward widespread rollout.
It starts by highlighting the consultative process and the business case that led to the document’s creation, identifying the stakeholders and beneficiaries involved in the deployment of automated vehicle tech. Again, this recognizes the importance of involving people in the implementation of advanced systems. It then identifies four use cases illustrating the ways self-driving tech could be applied to enhance transport outcomes. Each is described with clear illustrations to guide the reader.
The needs, capabilities and scenarios for the integration of automated vehicles into FHWA’s operation are then explained. With my role supporting National Highways in achieving its Vision Zero safety goal for major roads in England, it was very pleasing to see the Safe System approach referenced here as one of the societal outcomes that FHWA is seeking to achieve. Similarly, there is recognition that new tech can introduce equity concerns that must be addressed.
Importantly, the document closes with FHWA’s next steps – the ConOps is not an endpoint but represents the start of local, state, federal and national collaboration in pursuit of common goals that self-driving technology may help to achieve.
A cause for celebration? For me, that comes when the technologies described start to deliver their promised benefits. However, as a positive and human step toward achieving that goal, ConOps is to be warmly welcomed.
This column first appeared in the September 2023 edition of TTi magazine