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Autonomous vehicles are coming. Cities need to start planning. Now

Experts don't agree on how soon, but driverless cars will change everything

A street scene is displayed as data visualized by a Google autonomous car. (Reuters)
A street scene is displayed as data visualized by a Google autonomous car. (Reuters)

The day autonomous vehicles outnumber manned vehicles is coming, and experts say transportation and urban planners, public policy makers and others must begin working on this reality to ensure decisions and investments of today align with needs of tomorrow.

Autonomous vehicles, it is believed, could travel closer together, faster and in a more confined space. Lanes could be smaller and fewer. On-street parking could be minimized.

Vehicles could park themselves outside urban areas, creating more room for commercial development, bike lanes and wider sidewalks, and green space for recreation, parks, and to help manage stormwater. Seniors and those with disabilities could more easily access doctors and recreation, and those now lacking reliable transportation could have more employment opportunities.

Add to this that American drivers spend 29.6 billion hours a year commuting — 24 miles each way, on average — according to the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning a greater potential for workforce productivity if people can work on the go. Driver shortages plaguing shipping companies could be decreased, and the vehicles could operate more cleanly, safely and efficiently.

These are common theories of scholars and industry experts in transportation planning papers and articles. To be sure, considerable challenges also exist.

No one knows for certain when this day of a driverless vehicle saturated society will arrive or for sure what it will look like. Some suggest it’s just a matter of years, others say decades or more.

In ‘full swing’ by 2030?

Paul Trombino, a former nominee to lead the Federal Highway Administration who now heads Iowa-based McClure Engineering, was seen as a visionary in how to modernize the transportation system and plan for a future of autonomous vehicles as director of the Iowa Department of Transportation from 2011-16.

“Right now, the biggest question is what do they have the need for in the existing system and will they have the same need in the future,” Trombino said. “My belief is no. They should already be starting to think about this. Are there elements to be building in now to change the system?”

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The transition to autonomous vehicles already has begun, Trombino added. The American Planning Association reports the top 11 automakers each have plans to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021. By the 2030s, Trombino anticipates, autonomous vehicles will have a measurable foothold on public roadways.

This is important because roads are designed to last 30 or 40 years, bridges 75 to 100 years, and urban planning decisions of today — such as redeveloping blighted areas such as the New Bohemia District in Cedar Rapids and the Riverfront Crossing district in Iowa City — could last generations.

Autonomous vehicles may seem more sci-fi than reality at this point, but several research papers support Trombino’s timeline and urge decision-makers to take it seriously.

A 2017 paper — called “Taming the Autonomous Vehicle: A Primer for Cities” for Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation — projected by 2025 that 6 percent of vehicles worldwide will be fully automated and 36 percent will be partially automated. By 2030, the transition will be in “full swing,” and by 2035, the number will grow to 38 percent fully autonomous and 39 percent partially autonomous, according to the report.

By 2040, experts with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predict 75 percent of vehicles will be autonomous, according to the report.

Others see a longer transition.

Jeff Speck, an urban planner, designer and author who advised Cedar Rapids as it rethought downtown to make it more walkable and bikeable, wrote last year “that major change is unlikely to happen for several decades (and) other experts think that full autonomy will not happen at all.”

Dan McGehee, an associate professor and director of University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, said it will be 20 years before 90 percent of the vehicle fleet using roadways include the latest driver-assisted technology in today’s new vehicle models. Fully autonomous vehicles having a meaningful presence on the road is at least 50 years away, he predicts.

The National League of Cities put out a “policy preparation guide” for autonomous vehicles last year.

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Recommendations include begin planning now; consider policy development that could anticipate issues such as procurement and public safety; have a voice in developments at the state and federal level; and begin planning infrastructure needs and building data and computing capacity to position your city to take advantage of an automated mobility future.

Questions

Some public-sector planners and traffic engineers describe this as an exciting time, but also a time in which a lot of questions exist — and not many answers.

Will autonomous vehicles create more or less congestion? Will autonomous vehicles be a shared fleet or will people still largely own their own vehicles? Will public transit remain viable or needed?

How much data storage and broadband capacity will be needed and who will support it? How will autonomous vehicles affect revenue streams, such as parking and speeding tickets?

In Cedar Rapids, which is rebuilding its roads and has discussed a new downtown Five Seasons parking ramp, the autonomous vehicle future is on the radar but not a factor when designing the projects of today.

“Right now, when we are designing a road, we still have to design it to all of the current standards,” said John Witt, a Cedar Rapids transportation engineer. But, he added, “It’s coming. Someday down the road, every car could be an autonomous vehicle. But I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime.”

Regardless, Witt said, autonomous vehicles will need to function on roads of today and coexist with the non-autonomous fleet. The transition period to a more autonomous fleet will last a long time, he said.

For now, the focus is on traffic flow, ensuring accessibility for multiple modes of transportation, and making lane markings and signs discernible for both drivers and automated vehicles, which use markings and signs for lane awareness and speed control, he said. “Automated” refers to vehicles with some form of automation as opposed to driverless.

Wider shoulders

Donna Matulac is the automated vehicle technologies project manager at the Iowa DOT. A big focus is collecting accurate data, she said. One project examines how automated vehicles can navigate construction zones and developing national standards for data to support this, she said.

An Iowa DOT Interstate 380 study this year identified pavement designed with automated vehicles in mind, continuous fiber optics and other infrastructure upgrades such as readable signs, cameras and sensors to feed into automated vehicle programs. Thicker, wider shoulders built today potentially could be autonomous-vehicle-only lanes in the future, Matulac said.

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A new initiative called the Iowa Advisory Council on Automated Transportation unites key players from state and local government, private sector, insurance and research to examine “where from the state of Iowa perspective should we be going,” Matulac said. The group is setting up subcommittees to focus on infrastructure, communications, economic development and safety, she said.

While Iowa has embraced automated vehicles on some fronts, it is among 34 states barring autonomous truck platoons.

Eastern Iowa has become a forerunner in the autonomous vehicle movement. The U.S. Department of Transportation last year named the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor and the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator as one of 10 designated automated vehicle proving grounds in the nation.

The Driving Simulator, the city of Iowa City and Bogdan Kapatsila, Chanel Jelovchan, Hossain Mohiuddin and Jeremy Williams — a group of master’s students in the UI Urban and Regional Planning graduate program — recently began a partnership on a yearlong capstone project.

The project is designed to “help Iowa City prepare for the anticipated impacts of automated vehicles on the built environment and community” as well as increased prevalence of ride hailing. 


The proposal calls to develop policy guidance for how ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles could fill gaps in the public transportation system and expand access to jobs and health care; a parking and complete streets plan with ride-sharing drop-off areas and reallocation of downtown parking and road space; and implications and integration of exclusive pedestrian and low-speed automated vehicle zones and how that impacts urban land use.

The project proposal requests recommendations for the next five to 10 years and the next 10 to 20 years.

“We are looking at hot spots, looking at areas humans might want automated vehicles — areas that are dense, downtown or employment bases,” said Ashley McDonald, project manager for the Driving Simulator and a project mentor.

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Darian Nagle-Gamm, Iowa City transportation director and a project lead for the city, said she hopes the project addresses how autonomous vehicle adaptation could be unique in Iowa City.

For example, a third of the traveling public move by bike, walking or public transit there, and the city wants to maintain that culture, she said.

“The picture is fuzzy right now, but we don’t want to be caught in 20 years having not considered the impacts and be in a situation where you are backpedaling,” she said.

■ Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Recommendations for planners

Autonomous vehicles are on our roads today, so start planning now.

Decide policy development with the right people at the table.

Track and monitor federal and state developments and make your voices heard.

Begin planning infrastructure needs and building data and computing capacity to position your city to take advantage of an automated mobility future.

Source: National League of Cities

Levels of Automation

LEVEL 01

Function-Specific Partial Automation

An automated system that can assist parts of the driving task, such as controlling speed, braking or steering, for part of the time.

LEVEL 02

Function-Specific Full Automation

This enables a part of the driving to be entirely automated, with the human playing an active monitoring role, such as automatic parking.

LEVEL 03

Function-Specific Full Awareness Automation

There is awareness of the environment around the vehicle, and can fully automate and monitor some parts of driving. The human driver must be ready to take back control but is not actively monitoring every aspect of the driving.

LEVEL 04

Environment-Specific Full Automation

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The driver no longer is expected to constantly monitor driving or the driving environment, but the automated system can only operate in certain environments and under certain conditions, such as highway-only automation.

LEVEL 05

Full Automation

The automated system can perform all driving and monitoring functions in all environments.

Source: National League of Cities

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