Accomplishing the vision of a completely autonomous transportation system would require the public and private investment of trillions of dollars over the next few decades. But some say that before automotive and technology executives, policymakers and others can even consider implementing such a vast overhaul, America faces a potentially preemptive obstacle: bringing its existing infrastructure up to snuff.
"Trying to promote the wide deployment of highly automated AVs with a crumbling road infrastructure is a bit like installing a new chandelier in a house that's on fire," said John Peracchio, acting CEO of Conduent Transportation, a Florham Park, N.J.-based company that provides the brains for tollways and other transportation systems.
"But this is not a regulatory matter — it's a political and economic matter."
There has been broad and bipartisan agreement in Washington, D.C., for many years that America may need to spend trillions of dollars to fix a ground-transportation infrastructure that is dilapidated in many areas, but that has led to little decisive action.
"Every policymaker knows something needs to be done," said Robyn Boerstling, vice president of infrastructure for the National Association of Manufacturers, which favors a new federal infrastructure program to maintain the global competitiveness of U.S. factories.
NAM is typical in warning that infrastructure investment now amounts to only about one-third what it was in 1960 and that, without action, America will lose nearly 6 million jobs by 2040. "But it's always been a high hurdle to achieve a $1 [trillion] or $2 trillion infrastructure package," Boerstling said. "We still need an overarching federal vision attached to what the states might be doing."
That has been difficult in the face of political gridlock and record — and growing — federal debt.
In July, Reuters reports, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators unveiled a proposal to authorize $287 billion in federal government spending over five years to maintain and repair the country's aging highways, bridges and tunnels, but Congress still faces the tough task of finding a way to pay for it. Meanwhile, the federal fuel tax is at 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel and hasn't risen since 1993. The tax helps support transportation programs.
The fate of the interstate highway system will be crucial. About 25 percent of U.S. vehicle miles are traveled there, and the freeways "are the most likely venue for all sorts of initial niche applications for AVs, such as platooning demonstrations and self-driving trucks," said Chris Hendrickson, professor emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences study committee on the future of the interstate.
At the state level, there's lots of talk about new gasoline taxes, and even increased sales taxes. A potential Achilles' heel in boosting gasoline taxes, of course, is the expectation that all-electric vehicles will become a significant part of the fleet in the years ahead.
EVs' growth is one reason for more consideration of tollways and per-mile road-use charges on interstates.
Cities also could use congestion pricing. New York is set to become the first city in America to implement a toll on vehicles heading into its most crammed areas, in the hopes of tamping traffic growth and raising money for infrastructure improvements, much as London, Singapore and other cities have done.
Then there's also the matter of smarter roads, which could help make human-driven vehicles as well as pedestrians safer. Smart roads can incorporate vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, which use markings, sensors, feedback systems and wireless networks embedded in streets, abutments, traffic signals and elsewhere to keep cars from crashing into one another.
However, any concerns about the capabilities of smart infrastructure to support an AV system "may be overblown," in the words of Paul Appleby, CEO of data-analytics provider Kinetica. That's because vehicles themselves will be required to carry most of the artificial intelligence. Just as the most sophisticated safety systems in today's vehicles — such as adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warnings — depend on the electronic capabilities of the car itself and not on input from the external infrastructure.
In the meantime, Collin Castle, intelligent-systems program manager for the state of Michigan, said states are focused on "future-proofing" investments in infrastructure. "If you're spending $200,000 or $250,000 to modernize a signaling intersection, you'll add incremental costs to support connectivity for cooperative automation in the future," he said.