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How Washington state could turn freeways over to self-driving cars

From the Oct. 13, 2017 presentation at the Washington State Transportation Commission, proposing a future where lanes are dedicated to certain self-driving vehicles. (Washington State Transportation Commission)

You typically see two types of lines on the freeway as you drive: yellow stripes along the shoulder, and reflective white stripes separating the lanes. You might not think much about them, but a self-driving car does.

If state planners start now, modifying those lines will be just one aspect of serving a self-driving future on I-5, replacing human drivers.

“For the next 20 years, you get to coexist with these automated vehicles, so we want the human driver to see better performance from pavement marking and signing, while at the same time we want to make sure that machine-vision systems — that autonomous vehicles are using — also can see those pavement markings and signings,” said Scott Kuznicki with the Transpo Group.

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Kuznicki and Bruce Agnew with the Cascadia Center, provided an informational presentation to the Washington State Transportation Commission. It was meant to get a message across — a self-driving future is coming and Washington needs to prepare.

For example, the LIDAR systems that autonomous vehicles use can easily read some stripes on I-5, but may have trouble with other lines depending on quality of paint, profile, etc. Line sizes also may change from road-to-road and self-driving cars need consistency.

As self-driving technology evolves over the coming years, experts like Kuznicki and Agnew are urging Washington leaders to make changes to our roadways. They predict that by 2040, I-5 and other freeways will be entirely occupied by autonomous vehicles. But that takes planning, funding, and construction.

Self-driving I-5

In a world without human drivers, the trucking industry will convert to driverless big rigs. Car-share services will transition to self-driving vehicles. Transit could turn to self-driving buses. Each will require specific needs on the road. Part of what Kuznicki and Agnew promote is a dedicated lane for each use on the freeway.

This notion of a self-driving future is something Washington officials have heard before. Experts such as Tony Seba have warned that the self-driving industry could replace private car ownership by 2030.

Kuznicki and Agnew represent different organizations partnered to promote the ACES Northwest Network or “Automated, Connected, Electric, Shared.” Among the goals of the program is to turn I-5 in Washington state into an autonomous vehicle corridor. But the group also has its eyes set on stretches of I-90 and routes through Bellevue. In fact, the City of Bellevue is a partner.

“This ACES agenda offers some incredible opportunities for the state to modernize its transportation system using technology to relieve congestion, improve safety and bring to bear some equity provisions particularly in regard to moving more people with fewer vehicles on our interstate system,” Agnew said.

“Certainly, we know that I-5 is the most critical corridor for commerce in our state … in conjunction with I-90, which carries a great amount of freight traffic,” Kuznicki said.

Kuznicki and Agnew reported that self-driving tech is quickly advancing; the components and computing needed for a self-driving freeway system can all be found in Washington state — from Amazon and Microsoft’s cloud computing capacity to control systems from Boeing.

“What we ultimately hope to do is maximize the utility of the HOV network,” Kuznicki said. “We believe the HOV network can be expanded. We believe it can be re-purposed as you have done with I-405 … ultimately we believe it can serve more efficient and safer autonomous vehicle traffic.”

What the ACES group proposed at the meeting is a change on the roads every few years until drivers are eliminated.

  • Today: Share the road with self-driving vehicles
  • 2025: Have a dedicated lane in each direction for self-driving cars
  • 2030: Majority of lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles
  • 2040: Freeway is exclusively used by self-driving vehicles

That timeline is just a vision of what could happen. But it’s a vision that interest groups in Washington are pushing.

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