The other self-driving vehicle story

A great deal of the media’s coverage of self-driving vehicles these days focuses on the companies behind their development. This includes new players in the arena such as Google, Tesla, and Uber; as well as traditional auto manufactures such as GM and its Super Drive product. What seems largely to be missing, however, is a critical discussion about and with those charged with creating the infrastructure upon which these new vehicles will operate: the public sector; what they are doing today, and what must they do in the near future, to help ensure these machines achieve their promised benefits to society and the environment.

The public sector in this country (federal, state, and local municipalities), charged with creating the infrastructure upon which self-driving vehicles will operate, offer an equally interesting story to tell; as they develop the policies, procedures and expertise needed to ensure the nation’s infrastructure works in harmony with these vehicles.

State Departments of Transportation across the US, established in the 1950s to design and build the interstate system, now are preparing for self-driving vehicles. And unlike the private sector’s self-driving vehicle developers, today’s public sector transportation planners focus not on how to make these vehicles work, but on what happens when they do. They are beginning today, gaining the expertise needed to understand how these new machines will change the places in which we live, work and play.

This week’s grand opening of The University of Michigan’s Mcity test driving facility in Ann Arbor Michigan is an excellent example of the public sector stories developing around the country. This 32-acre facility, built in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation, shows how some state Departments of Transportation are playing key roles in bringing these new vehicle types to reality; by partnering with the private sector (over 15 entities in this case, including Ford, GM, Nissan and Toyota). Close working relationships like this enable the public sector to create policies, forecasts, and infrastructure that are informed by these vehicles before they begin to reach the fleet.

The Michigan Department of Transportation and a handful of others are leading the way right now, but we need more. Everyone responsible for creating and operating our nation’s infrastructure must prepare, today, for a future that is closer than we think. That means not only understanding how self-driving vehicles will operate, but what their operation means to our economy, land use and the environment—and how we can plan to make the most of it.

I hope that, as the media continues to ride the self-driving vehicle wave in the coming months, it will pay close attention to how the public sector charts a course to ensure not only vehicle performance, but also an environment designed to take full advantage of the industry’s promised benefits.