County gurus prepare for inevitable automated vehicles
Written by Jesse Scheckner on July 31, 2018
Automated vehicles – self-driving and self-parking cars, trucks, air and watercraft – are no longer things of science fiction. The technology is here, albeit primitively and in limited number, and Miami-Dade County’s transportation sector is preparing for its inevitable ubiquity.
Automated vehicle technology, or AV, is coming faster than many expect, according to Mayor Carlos Giménez, who told Miami Today last week that Miami-Dade’s partnership with Ford to map the county in preparation of driverless cars places the county “on the forefront” of AV readiness.
“I’m not talking 15, 20 years; I’m taking a five- to 10-year time period when you’re going to see a lot of automated vehicles on the streets of our town,” he said. “That will change not only the way we get around but also the kind of money we spend.”
Currently, all vehicles on the road with partial AV features are classified as having Level 1 or Level 2 autonomous technology. Such tech ranges from adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping automation to advanced driver assistance system that control the brakes, steering and acceleration while still requiring humans behind the wheel.
Just around the corner is Level 3 technology, which allows vehicles to take full control under specific situations like freeway driving (minus on- and off-ramp navigation and city driving). Drivers are still required, but active monitoring is unnecessary until conditions demand it.
Once vehicles reach Level 4 automation, human drivers won’t be required, though manual input will be possible. Level 4 vehicles are expected to operate within limited geographical ranges while in autonomous mode and may not exceed specific speeds.
Finally, Level 5 vehicles will be fully autonomous and capable of traveling anywhere and at any safe speed, with no control options for passengers, who will be able to work, read, nap or watch a movie while commuting.
But those hoping AV will alleviate Miami-Dade’s traffic woes should temper their expectations, according to transportation planner Tewari Edmonson, who said fewer demands on drivers may result in increased gridlock.
“Traffic congestion may go up,” he said. “If everyone has access to an automated vehicle, a lot more people will [be on the road]. Old commuters or students without driver’s licenses will now have the ability to use a single occupancy vehicle.”
How fast these advances will arrive and be adopted for government use depends on auto manufacturers and AV developers, said Jesus Guerra, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization (TPO).
Regulation and use in the public sector, he said, typically follows the lead of private industry.
“Usually the technology first comes to private cars,” he said. “Government is a little behind regarding technology, because we can’t put the money into something that may not work. The private sector gets it first, and when everyone gets it and it works well, then the public sector comes in and can try those technologies.”
In anticipation of this tech shift, the TPO two years ago commissioned a study, titled “Impact of Future Technology in the 2045 LRTP,” of how AV and peripheral technology will affect the county’s long-range transportation plan through 2045.
The study’s advisory group, consisting of personnel from the TPO, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Miami-Dade Transportation and Public Works (TPW) and consultants from Miami-based engineering firm Corradino Group, envisions a three-part timeline for AV rollout.
Between 2020 and 2025, expected developments include:
■Infrastructure able to support future AV needs.
■Improvements to PortMiami to facilitate next-generation tech; however, because automating container terminals is expensive, ports may delay buying in unless necessary.
■Devices that save logistics businesses billions by helping to move goods and assets through supply chain warehouses faster and cheaper.
■”Smart city” improvements to energy, water, waste, transit, retailing, utilities, wellness and healthcare, banking, building and manufacturing.
Key to this step is expansion of the “Internet of Things,” an overarching network of devices, vehicles, appliances and other items with electronics, software, sensors and movement mechanisms capable of exchanging data and impacting the physical world, resulting in higher efficiency, reduced human labor and related economic benefits.
“As technology further evolves, vehicles will become fully autonomous,” the study states. “Eventually, the computers will perform all these tasks simultaneously and as quick as, or quicker than, the human brain.”
One example of that technology is the “smart” signal control system the Department of Transportation and Public Works is in the process of using to overhaul the county’s traffic grid. At present, the signals can adjust to traffic flow, but as autonomy becomes more widespread, the signals will also be able to communicate with vehicles and, theoretically, improve street conditions.
“Right now, when the light turns green, the first human has to respond, then the next, etcetera,” transportation department Executive Director Alice Bravo said. “With autonomy, all the cars could move forward like a platoon and get through much faster. It’s a way for technology to increase the capacity of the roadways without widening them.”
Some groups are moving now to better facilitate AV on highways, where the technology will be used earlier and more frequently than in urban areas.
The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) – which operates state roads 836, 874, 878, 112 and 924 – is working to install on the 836 expressway higher visibility pavement marking and signage, such as LED reflective pavement markers and reflective striping that performs in wet weather, to be detected by camera-based AV systems.
“MDX declared 836 an intelligent, smart corridor, with the idea that as these technologies came on, it could be used as a testing corridor,” MDX consultant Albert Sosa said. “We want to put systems in place that facilitate that.”
Once demands calls for it, MDX highways will establish dedicated express technology (XT) lanes for automated and connected vehicles, though such accommodations aren’t expected in the short-term, Mr. Sosa said, adding that current widening efforts on the inside shoulders of the 836 intended for transit usage will eventually become XT lanes.
“For those vehicles to leverage the technologies they promise – they’re safer, can drive closer together and at a higher rate of speed – we’ll be able to use our existing infrastructure,” he said. “We can’t keep building asphalt and lanes.”
About 25% of vehicles on the road are expected to be self-driving and self-parking between 2026 and 2035, leading to some transportation job loss, the TPO study states.
Possible advancements during this period include:
■Automated transit buses, whose job impact “will be complicated by union relationships/negotiations” and require increased skill and maintenance personnel.
■Limited autonomous or semi-autonomous heavy-duty trucks.
■Experimental autonomous ambulances and increased use of ambulance drones, or “AirMules,” by hospitals and government.
■Expanded AV ridesharing. Uber expects its entire fleet to be fully autonomous by 2030.
■Solar-powered in-road light systems that detect pedestrians crossing the street, as well as safety reflectors featuring sensors, LED lights, wireless charging and communications that blink to alert drivers of pedestrian movements.
■A push toward solar roadways and experimentation with road friction technology, which would generate power from tire movement on roadways.
As with all prospective timelines, some developments may arrive and be applied sooner than expected. In this case, Mr. Guerra said it is likely.
“All the movement you see, this is something that may happen much faster,” he said. “Every speculation we made for 2035 could happen earlier.”
From 2036 to 2045, the study states the county will build on the work of the two previous phases and include in its long-rage transportation plan provisions for a wide range of public sector autonomous vehicles and related infrastructure, a spectrum of smart city technology and electric roadway, air and water vehicles.
“We don’t see any major impacts from autonomous vehicles until we have at least a 50% penetration rate,” Mr. Edmonson said. “But Miami-Dade County is proactive in addressing autonomous vehicles. We’re not waiting on that. We’re taking the first step.”