Driverless Vehicles Hit the Road in Texas

Believe again if you think your car will be driving you shortly.

Autonomous vehicles, often known as driverless or self-driving vehicles, are gaining popularity. However, while the car, tech, and ride-share industries are leading the charge, the reality that automation levels vary means it will be some time before you see an autonomous vehicle on the road.

The push for self-driving cars is particularly strong in Texas, fueled by circumstances that place it among the nation’s leaders in terms of automation:

  • According to U.S. Census data released in January, Texas has the fastest-growing population of any state; four of the five fastest-growing cities in the country with populations of 50,000 or more are in Texas; and Texas Demographic Center projections through 2045 suggest the state’s population will grow by 40%, with three-quarters of the population concentrated in Houston.
  • A new state law, which went into effect in September, permits automakers and others to test automated vehicles on the state’s roads and highways without having a driver inside.
  • The Texas (Automated Vehicle) A.V. Proving Ground Partnership is one of ten pilots approved by the United States Department of Transportation in 2017 to “promote testing and information sharing around automated vehicle technology.”

“A strong economy, inexpensive housing, and a well-developed transit system are all factors that contribute to our growth. To maintain that, you must continue to enhance and improve all of those areas, “According to Christopher Poe of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, who also acts as the state’s proving grounds point person. “We have to keep going.”

Poe’s workplace, Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute, the University of Texas—Austin, and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio are all part of the Texas A.V. Proving Ground Partnership. Urban test sites, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and 32 governmental entities are among the other participants. These pockets of creativity can be found in places as disparate as Houston’s HOV lanes and El Paso’s border and port. The testing of emerging transportation systems and the data collection that goes with them is a recurring thread.

Because the DOT’s designation of proving grounds did not involve funding, the projects at the ten locations are on their own for the time being.

“The Department is still considering its options for the Automated Proving Grounds PILOT program,” a DOT official said via email.

The Texas collaboration interpreted the federal classification as a go-ahead. The state’s initiative is now showing up on the roads, either in controlled settings like test tracks or in specific regions like Arlington, where a yearlong pilot nicknamed “Milo” began in August and gained traction. Free autonomous car transportation is provided from entertainment area parking lots to Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys games and other special events. The city of Arlington leased two low-speed shuttles for $272,000 apiece, each with a dozen seats and an operator who delivers information and serves as a backup in case the shuttle has to operate manually. The operator does not drive, and there is no steering wheel.

According to Karla Taylor, chief of staff for the Austin Transportation Department, a pilot program set to begin next month will allow vehicles to “speak” to each other or to infrastructure to give greater and advanced visibility for pedestrians.

DSRC – Dedicated Short Range Communications – will be installed at separate junctions on the same six-lane divided road with considerable pedestrian activity and on ten buses running that route during the eight-week test.

“If a person approaches a crosswalk button to cross, that button will be linked to the DSRC equipment and send a message to the oncoming Capital Metro bus that a pedestrian is going to cross in the crosswalk,” Taylor explains. “There will be tablets on the buses that will relay the message to the driver.”

The overarching rationale for the tremendous financial and research commitment in driverless cars is safety. Unfortunately, human drivers are prone to errors: Drivers are to fault for 94 percent of crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with identification errors accounting for 41 percent, judgment errors for 33 percent, and performance errors accounting for 11 percent.

TxDOT’s director of strategy and innovation, Darran Anderson, argues that while safety comes first, automation has other advantages.

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“Reducing the number of crashes will lessen traffic congestion caused by crashes,” he believes. “But, whether it will lower the number of automobiles on the road, many of these questions have yet to be answered. It may increase the number of vehicles on the road, but they will fit in the same amount of space and flow at the same rate.”

According to him, automated cars ensure safety without the risk of human error, allowing lane widths to narrow and vehicles to go closer together.

Two-vehicle truck platoons that travel in tight formation at following small distances are now engaged in such initiatives. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute is hosting a truck platooning experiment to increase safety, improve mobility, and lower fuel costs and emissions. The lead track is manually driven with platoons, while the second vehicle (which has a driver but is not driving) has automatic steering, accelerating, and braking. The vehicles are wirelessly linked and communicate.

“There are huge fuel and emissions reductions when they’re aligned precisely and following at close distances in highway speeds,” says Mike Lukuc, who leads such experiments at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station. “You start to see a 4- to 5-percent reduction in fuel consumption and a reduction in the lead truck and an 8- to 10-percent reduction in the second vehicle at 55 miles per hour traveling 30 to 60 feet apart – you can follow at that distance very safely – you start to see a 4- to 5-percent reduction in fuel consumption and a reduction in the lead truck and an 8- to 10-percent reduction in the second vehicle,” he says.

The Institute’s platooning research will be included in a study commissioned by the American Center for Mobility in Michigan, one of the DOT’s ten approved proving grounds. The research, which was revealed earlier this month, will focus on future transportation vocations, such as taxi drivers, professional truck drivers, delivery drivers, and how autonomous cars would impact them.

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The new state law in Texas is an open invitation to automakers and others to test self-driving cars on state roads and highways, which Texas welcomes.

“What happened in other states is that towns began to regulate in this sector and create a hodgepodge of legislation that makes it very difficult to operate in those states,” says North Richland Hills State Senator Kelly Hancock of the bill he authored last year. “We wanted the industry to understand that Texas is a welcoming environment for this type of research.”

Texas, on the other hand, did not lead the way in passing legislation governing automated vehicles.

Nevada was the first state to legalize autonomous vehicles, doing so in 2011. Since then, 20 states have enacted similar legislation, with governors in Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, Washington, and Wisconsin issuing executive orders on automated vehicles. Arizona and California, along with Texas, are among the nation’s leaders in autonomous car testing. The National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group of state legislators, decided to build a database for autonomous vehicle legislation in response to the rapid rise across the country.

“Texas, in particular, is one of the greatest conditions for testing autonomous vehicles,” says Scott Hall of the Auto Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents 12 manufacturers, including Ford Motor Company, G.M., Toyota, and Volvo Car USA.

There is a set level of automation for any driverless vehicle, which spans from Level 0 (human driver) to Level 5 (totally automated) (fully automated with no human driver). That’s why “self-driving” or “autonomous” can refer to various levels of autonomy and doesn’t specify what the car can perform on its own or whether a backup driver is required.

“It’s a wild new world out there,” the Auto Alliance’s Hall adds. “Autonomous vehicles represent a transportation paradigm shift.”