• Smash the Box

Why Autonomous Vehicle Transportation Planning Matters

The case for not planning for self-driving cars has been driven by the notion that such technology is too advanced to be developed. This logic is now changing with the emergence of semi-autonomous features (cruise control, automatic emergency braking, car summoning, etc...) which are now becoming a standard feature in cars today.  Not only are semi-autonomous features becoming standardized, but the automotive industry has shifted into full gear in order to research, test, and mass produce self-driving vehicles. Which leads to question when AV's do reach the market how might they disrupt our transit infrastructure, and how should we plan for this new technology? In order to answer that question key stakeholders such as Transportation Planners, must start planning for the implementation of AV's. 


Given that the car and tech industries are still testing AV's the data typically used by Transportation Planners to plan for roads & infrastructure (system capacity & demand)  does not exist for AV. The starting point for AV transportation planning involves methods such as envisioning scenario planning, which are used to assess and prioritize key themes in guiding what should be planned first when making policy decisions and infrastructure investments. John S. Niles, Research Director at the Center for Advanced Transportation & Energy Solutions, stresses the need for major stakeholders to start planning for AV's by using two adoption scenarios. I believe that we need to start working with what we have now and build from there. We need to use the envision scenarios, we need use the data at hand, and we need to use realistic approaches for successfully planning self-driving cars into our future lives.


Understanding that AV technology will forever be evolving and will not just happen overnight, it's going to be gradually phased into our streets, and will impact our transit and infrastructure systems. So before anyone starts complaining about their job being taken over by robots, you have to understand that the technology is still not there yet.

Example: One highly competitive AV company, that I shall not name are  building High Definition (HD) maps from scratch. Could you imagine QA + QC ing, labeling, and rebuilding an entire map with the entire physical infrastructure system that makes up one city? Could you imagine doing so from scratch just so that the AV could recognize a sign or width of a street? I couldn't either, and that's where they're at with developing this technology (SAE level-2).

(Vox, 2016)

Bridging the gap towards designing SAE level-5 AV's will take part when Transportation Planners and car + tech companies start discussing how both can mutually benefit from AV's. One example is that Transportation Planning GIS Departments have existing and updated open source infrastructure data that can be readily used for AV High Definition Maps. Another example is what is known as V2I or Vehicle to Infrastructure Technology, Transportation Planners could provide car + tech companies with Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) data, which would provide real live time data use of AV's gathering traffic control information, and in return create an AV system that is efficient.  


Proactive Planning is another starting point for AV Transportation Planners. Proactive Planning for AV's starts with understanding that this new mode of transit should complement existing modes of transit (bikes, pedestrians, buses,light rail, etc...), which will allow for a balance of use and demand. If not, then this mode could potentially become the most dominant mode and will come with consequences if not planned for.  

(This is a prime example of what could happen if engineers are left to designing the cars and the roads. CityLab, 2012)

Transportation Planners need to work with car and tech companies who are developing the technology and testing the AV's within their jurisdictions in order to start planning ahead for AV's. Inclusive planning practices which include all stakeholders at the table for decision making. It's a 'Getting to Yes' approach that will allow for the creation of solutions from multiple options with mutual gains. 


Right now  California and New York are the only 2 states that require annual testing reports from those who have applied for AV testing permits. This is the only data that is open to the public and shows a great detail of information for the current status of where AV technology is at on the SAE level scale. The reports contain: # of vehicles tested, locations of testing sites, and the issues with AV technology in the physical built environment.  What is most valuable about this data is that the reports describe road classifications and locations of where the AV testing is being done. As planners we understand that roads are traditionally planned for their use and their adjacent land use.

Ex: You want wider roads for an industrial district because transit using these roads are large trucks. These trucks need ample space for turning and are designed for carrying large freight loads. This is typically seen in land zoned for industrial districts. Collecting data on whether AV's are being tested in such locations, types of AV's that are being tested, and issues with testing AV's within this space could be used for proactive planning and design. 

Policies such as the collection of data from AV's being tested could be used for planning our future roads and infrastructure.  Using policy to collect data and location sites for the testing of AV's is key to proactive planning/design. Proactively planning for this disruption should account for how we could forecast/plan for the future AV impacts on transportation and land use. Depending on the frequency of use, the reason for use, and the location of use is essential for forecasting the changes of transit infrastructure, land use changes, and population changes within geographic regions.

 What i've touched on in this blog post are what I believe to be great starting points for AV Transit Planning. There is more to come, so stay tuned. 

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