Surface Transportation: The Department of Transportation Proposes Significant Changes to Its Automated Highway System Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-06-09.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

United States
General Accounting Office
Washington, D.C. 20548

Resources, Community, and
Economic Development Division


June 9, 1997

The Honorable Constance Morella
Chairwoman, Subcommittee
 on Technology
Committee on Science
House of Representatives

Subject:    Surface Transnortation:   The Denartment of Transnortation Pronoses
            Significant Changes to Its Automated Highwav Svstem Program

Dear Madam Chairwoman:

This report responds to your request for information on the current goals and
future direction of the Department of Transportation’s   (DOT) Automated
Highway System program. This program seeks to increase the capacity of the
nation’s highways and to improve safety by automating many driving tasks and
enhancing drivers’ ability to avoid accidents. An automated highway system
includes a spectrum of technologies, ranging from intelligent vehicles that can
notify drivers of unsafe situations to technologies that assume full control of
driving tasks. This report provides information on (1) the potential benefits and
drawbacks of implementing a fully automated highway system and (2) DOT’s
proposed changes to the Automated Highway System program and the
implications of these changes.

In summary, we found the following:

-      According to DOT and the National Automated Highway System
       Consortium, a fully automated highway system could significantly
       enhance the safety of highway travel by reducing or eliminating accidents
       caused by “human factors”-that is, by fatigue, inattentiveness, or poor
       decisions on the part of drivers. In addition, a fully automated system
       could increase highway capacity and reduce travel times because
       automatically driven vehicles could travel on an intelligent roadway
       within a few meters of one another at normal highway speeds or faster.
       However, automated highway system analysts have noted that before
       these benefits can be realized, significant operational issues will have to

                       GAOLRCED-97-177R DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

      be resolved. For example, the greater numbers of vehicles on an
      automated highway could create bottlenecks at exit points as more
      traffic reenters nonautomated streets. In addition, a fully automated
      highway system raises important questions about the technology’s impact
      on air quality and land use, about liability, and about the program’s costs
      and benefits. These issues have been studied but not yet resolved under
      the Automated Highway System program’s initial research efforts.

      According to DOT officials, in January 1997 DOT began to consider
      refocusing the direction of the program from long-term efforts to deploy
      a fully automated system to shorter-term research designed primarily to
      develop and test near-term technologies.    As a result, the program will no
      longer focus on developing “revolutionary”    technologies intended to
      produce a fully automated highway in the next 20 or 30 years. Instead,
      the program will be “evolutionary,” testing and deploying increasingly
      advanced technologies over the next 6 to 8 years to enhance drivers’
      ability to avoid accidents and improve safety on the nation’s highways.
      For example, the program will focus on collision avoidance warning
       systems that notify drivers when they are too close to other vehicles.
       DOT is proposing these changes because the administration      and the
       system’s potential users did not widely support the long-term fully
       automated vision and DOT believed that the program needed to produce
       short-term benefits to remain viable. The program’s shift from a long- to
       a short-term focus creates uncertainties, including (1) whether the
       public/private consortium leading the Automated Highway System
       program wiIl restructure its membership or dissolve, (2) how the
       refocused program will coordinate its research with comparable research
       conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,     and (3)
       how the Department will sustain investments in important long-term,
       high-risk research. DOT officials expect to resolve many of these issues
       by the end of the summer.


Established by the Intermodal Surface Transportation   Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in
1991, DOT’s Intelligent Transportation  Systems (ITS) program has received $1.3
billion in federal funds to advance the use of computer and telecommunications
technology to enhance the safety and efficiency of surface transportation.  The
principal long-term research component of the ITS program is the Automated
Highway System program, which involves research and development on a
number of advanced technologies designed to automate many driving tasks.
The automated highway system concept includes several levels of automation.

2                     GAO/RCED-97-177R    DOT’s Automated   Highway System Program

These range from an intelligent vehicle that can notify the driver of imminent
unsafe situations and assume temporary control of the vehicle to avoid
collisions, to an advanced autonomous vehicle that controls driving functions
such as steering and braking on normal roads, to an advanced system in which
the infrastructure and the vehicle interact and assume full control of the driving
tasks as long as the vehicle operates on an intelligent roadway. ISTEA directed
the Secretary of Transportation   to develop an automated highway and vehicle
prototype with the goal of having the first fully automated roadway or
automated test track in operation by 1997.

In the first years of the program, DOT contracted with various organizations,
such as Raytheon and the University of California, to study the technical
feasibility and benefits of implementing a fully automated highway system, as
well as the barriers to doing so. Since fiscal year 1995, the National Automated
Highway System Consortium’ (Consortium) has led the program under a 7-year
cooperative agreement with DOT. The Consortium-a        public-private partnership
including representatives of government, industry, and academia-is responsible,
under the direction of DOT’s Federal Highway Administration        (FHWA), for
defining the long-term vision for a fully automated system. The cooperative
agreement calls for DOT to provide up to 80 percent of the $202 million
originally budgeted for the 7-year effort.

From fiscal year 1993 through fiscal year 1997, DOT committed about $72
million to the program-$14 million to the pre-Consortium   studies and $58
million to the Consortium (see enc. I for more information on the program’s
funding). With its funding, the Consortium has assessed a number of safety
system technologies; examined numerous automated highway system prototype
concepts; and led a broad outreach effort consisting of workshops and forums
for more than 100 associate Consortium partners. In addition, the Consortium
planned and developed an automated highway system test-of-feasibility
demonstration, scheduled for August 1997 in San Diego. As part of the ITS
program, DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration     (NHTSA) also is
researching vehicle-based crash avoidance technologies to help improve safety
on the nation’s highways. These technologies are the building blocks of a fully
automated highway system. Both FHWA’s automated highway system research

‘The Consortium is a group of governmental, industrial, and academic
organizations that includes the Federal Highway Administration    and the
California Department of Transportation;  Bechtel, Delco Electronics, General
Motors, Hughes, Lockheed Martin, and Parsons Brinckerhoff; and Carnegie
Mellon University and the University of California.

3                     GAOiRCED-97-177R    DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

and NHTSA’s crash avoidance research are managed and coordinated by the
Joint Program Office, which is responsible for managing all ITS research.


According to DOT and Consortium documents, a fully automated highway
system would enhance safety and expand capacity on the nation’s highways.
Before a fully automated highway system could be deployed, however, a
number of technical and operational questions would have to be addressed. In
addition, analysts have noted that a deployed automated highway system could
have significant environmental, legal, social equity, and budgetary implications.

Literature that we reviewed from DOT and other sources maintains that a fully
automated highway system could make the nation’s highways safer. As
envisioned, all components controlling a vehicle-the steering, braking, and
acceleration-would   be fully automated, preventing the driver from making
errors as long as the vehicle remained on the automated road. Such a system
could thus reduce or eliminate accidents attributable to human error, which
account for the large majority of highway fatalities and injuries.

According to DOT’s analyses and the literature we reviewed, a fully automated
system could also significantly reduce congestion and increase capacity without
requiring the construction of additional roads or lanes. On a fully automated
highway system, vehicles could be grouped together in platoons. Separated by
a few meters from one another, they could travel at speeds ranging from normal
highway speeds up to 125 miles per hour. Upon entering a fully automated
highway, a driver would indicate the desired destination and the system would
assume the tasks of driving. A central computer would manage traffic and
determine which vehicles to platoon, when to change speeds, and when to
separate individual vehicles from their platoons. Because of the reduced
distance between vehicles and the higher speeds, highway capacities would be
 significantly increased. Also, automated control could allow for narrower lanes,
 enabling jurisdictions   to add new lanes on existing highway rights-of-way.
 Finally, a fully automated roadway could improve the flow of traffic by
 eliminating the irregular speeding and braking that occur because of differences
 in drivers’ abilities and driving habits. According to a DOT estimate, highway
 capacities could be doubled or tripled under full automation.

 4                     GAO/RCED-97-177R    DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

However, according to DOT-funded studies’ and other technical papers, the
Automated Highway System program must overcome a number of operational
issues before it can fully realize these improvements in safety and efficiency.
F’irst, a fully automated highway system could require additional rights-of-way
near entrance and exit ramps to form platoons and conduct safety checks on
vehicles. This additional area might not be available in densely developed
urban and suburban locations. Second, the additional traffic generated by the
automated highway might produce congestion on the exit ramps and connecting
nonautomated roads. This effect might negate some of the benefits of improved
traffic flow and create opposition to the automated system in residential and
commercial areas affected by the increase in traffic. Third, the failure of a
vehicle’s braking or steering system on a fully automated highway could
interrupt the flow of traffic and possibly cause a chain reaction accident. Some
analysts have noted that vehicles would have to be more reliable than current
cars and that the maintenance requirements for such vehicles could be very
expensive. Requiring backup systems on vehicles or a lane dedicated to
disabled vehicles could add significantly to the cost of vehicles or

l?inally, even if all operational issues were resolved, a number of other issues
would remain. First, the additional capacity that a fully automated system
would allow might produce more air pollution and promote urban sprawl. If
more vehicles were accommodated at faster speeds on a fully automated
highway, vehicle emissions might increase and degrade air quality. In the long
nm, commuters might live farther from the workplace, encouraging urban
sprawl and greater dependence on the automobile.        Second, in the event of an
accident on a fully automated highway, liability issues might arise. Since the
automated system is intended to eliminate accidents attributable to human
factors, the victims of an accident might blame either the vehicle manufacturer
or the state highway department.       Both automakers and state highway
departments might be reluctant to embark on full automation unless their
liability were limited. Third, equity issues would have to be addressed.
Vehicles equipped to travel on a fully automated highway might cost more and
be affordable only to affluent travelers. Since the costs of construction and
maintenance might be higher for a fully automated highway than for a
conventional highway, critics contend that the Automated Highway System
program would use public funds to support affluent drivers who could afford to
buy automated vehicles. F’inally, according to Consortium, Joint Program Office

%unmaxv and Assessment of Funding from the Precursor Analvses of
Automated Highwav Svstems, DOT (Oct. 1995).

5                     GAOLRCED-97-177R DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Association
(AASHTO) officials, the states are concerned about the costs of constructing
and maintaining fully automated highways. Dollars for maintaining even today’s
conventional highways are scarce, and some have noted that the investment
required to implement a fully automated system would not be feasible for the
foreseeable future.


DOT is currently changing the Automated Highway System program’s focus
from long- to short-term-or   from a revolutionary to an evolutionary approach.
Instead of attempting to develop a system that would significantly increase the
capacity of the nation’s highways, DOT is proposing to emphasize technologies
designed to help drivers avoid accidents. According to DOT officials, this
change does not mean that DOT is abandoning the long-term goal of deploying
a fully automated highway system. However, this change, which resulted from
limited support for the program’s original objectives, creates uncertainties about
the future of the program and DOT’s long-term research agenda.

The New Program Is to Focus on Develoning      and Testing In-Vehicle Crash
Avoidance Technologies

Under the program’s new focus, DOT would develop and test three levels of
increasingly advanced crash avoidance technologies, including several vehicle-
based technologies currently under study by NHTSA. Level 1 technologies
would include collision avoidance warning systems to notify drivers when they
come too close to other vehicles or begin to steer off the roadway. Level 2
technologies would include advanced collision avoidance warning systems to
alert drivers to potential crashes in more complex driving situations, such as at
intersections.   It would also include other advanced technologies to monitor
 drivers for signs of drowsiness, analyzing their head movements and blinking
patterns; enhance drivers’ vision at night and in fog; and temporarily take
 control of vehicles when drivers fail to respond to in-vehicle warnings. Finally,
 level 3 technologies would include further advances in collision avoidance,
 including technologies to control steering, acceleration, and braking.

According to a senior NHTSA official, NHTSA has completed substantial
research on level 1 and level 2 technologies. The official said that one
important unanswered question about these technologies is whether drivers can
process the information the technologies provide without impairing safety. The
official stated that the new program would conduct simulated driving tests and

6                     GAO/RCED-97-177R    DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

develop vehicles equipped with one or more new technologies     to learn more
about drivers’ reactions to the new technologies.

Consistent with the near-term emphasis of the refocused program, DOT
anticipates that when level 1 is completed and level 2 is under development in 6
to 8 years, it will have developed prototype vehicles that include several crash
avoidance technologies.      In addition, DOT expects to have completed field tests
of the vehicles by the end of the level 1 and 2 periods. According to a NHTSA
official, if these technologies can be made cost-effective, they should be
marketable at that time. With the implementation      of these technologies for
assisting drivers, NHTSA estimates that it can eliminate around 1 million of the
6.4 million crashes that occur on the nation’s highways each year. The schedule
for implementing the more advanced level 3 technologies is longer, extending
well into the next century.

According to officials from ITS’ Joint Program Office, two main factors
prompted the change in the Automated Highway System program’s focus. First,
there was virtually no support within the administration, particularly within the
Office of Management and Budget, for research that was not expected to
produce benefits for 20 to 30 years. Second, feedback that the Consortium
received during its outreach sessions with stakeholders-such     as state highway
agencies, local transportation  planners, and environmental groups-revealed
limited support for the fully automated system. This view was shared by an
AASHTO official, who said that most state highway agencies are interested in
short-term infrastructure, maintenance, and safety issues and do not posses the
long-term planning horizon to support a fully automated highway system. As a
result, the Joint Program officials said, they had to refocus the program to make
it viable.

The Program’s New Focus Leaves Manv Issues Unresolved

Although the program’s new focus may yield      near-term benefits, the change
raises important questions for the program’s   future. While these issues have not
been resolved to date and the final outcomes     may not be lmown for a number
of months, DOT officials said they expect to   resolve many of these issues by the
end of the summer.

According to DOT and Consortium officials, the change in the direction of the
Automated Highway System program may affect the Consortium’s membership-
some partners may drop out or the Consortium may dissolve altogether.
Although DOT and the Consortium operate through a cooperative agreement,
DOT decided to shift the program’s emphasis to vehicle-based research. This

7                    GAOLRCED-97-177R DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

type of research-which  may be relevant for some Consortium participants, such
as General Motors and Delco-may not be of interest to more infrastructure-
based members, such as Bechtel, Parsons Brinckerhoff,       and California’s
Department of Transportation.    In addition, the administration’s   proposal for
reauthorizing ISTEA includes a provision limiting the federal cost share to 50
percent for long-range research undertaken in partnership with private entities.
This provision could reduce the federal share for the Automated Highway
System program from 80 to 50 percent. Consortium officials stated that after
polling their members, they concluded that the Consortium would likely fold
should this provision remain in the final bill and apply to the refocused
program. However, according to these officials, the Consortium intends to
refrain from taking any action until DOT completes the design of the new
program and legislation reauthorizing ISTEA is enacted.

The program’s new focus requires the Joint Program Office to make decisions
about how to coordinate research for the Automated Highway System program
and for NHTSA’s research program. DOT officials said they need to develop a
new program structure and identify the relative roles of various organizations.
The officials envisioned that the refocused research would combine the work of
NHTSA, FHWA, and the Consortium’s remaining members. In addition, in April
1997, FHWA requested the Transportation       Research Board (TRB) to assess the
appropriateness of the Automated Highway System program’s goals, identify
ways to reorient and combine FHWA’s and NHTSA’s vehicle-highway research
and development, and review the role of the Consortium.      However, TRB will
not complete its final report until several months after the Joint Program Office
expects to complete its plans for restructuring   the new program. Nevertheless,
Joint Program Office officials stated that TRB’s report will provide additional
information to help them refine the structure and guide the future direction of
the program.

Finally, the change in focus raises questions about how DOT will sustain its
long-term, high-risk research efforts. The Automated Highway System program
was the principal long-term research element in the ITS program. Under its
new focus, the Automated Highway System program may retain its original goal
for the distant future, but actual research and testing will focus on the near-
term deployment of collision avoidance and warning systems. In September
 1996, we reported that transportation   experts believe that DOT’s surface
research portfolio lacks a sufficient focus on long-term, basic research.3

 3Surface Transnortation: Research Funding;, Federal Role, and Emerging Issues
 (GAOLRCED-96-233, Sept. 6, 1996).

 8                    GAOIRCED-97-177R    DOT’s Automated   Highway System Program

However, as DOT and administration officials noted, a long-term research effort
is difficult to defend and sustain because tangible results often lie beyond a
near-term horizon.


We provided a draft of this report to DOT for review and comment and met
with the Director of ITS’ Joint Program Office and F’HWA and NHTSA officials
to obtain the Department’s comments. The Director had two overall concerns
with the information provided in the report. F’irst, she said that, in her opinion,
the report implied that DOT had abandoned the vision of a fully automated
highway system. She stated that although the program’s new focus will
emphasize near-term technologies and concentrate on in-vehicle technologies,
DOT views these technologies as “stepping stones” to full automation.     As a
result, she emphasized, DOT is not abandoning the concept of full automation.
We agreed to include this point in the report. Second, she said that although
the program faces the current uncertainties cited in our report, she believes the
Department has made progress in developing a new program and will resolve
most of these uncertainties by the end of the summer. We also agreed to
include this point in the report. In addition to these comments, the Director
and other DOT officials provided several technical and editorial comments,
which we have incorporated where appropriate.


We conducted our review from April 1997 through May 1997 in accordance wit1
generally accepted government auditing standards. To prepare this report, we
reviewed key F’HWA, NHTSA, and Consortium documents. In addition, we
reviewed numerous research articles and technical papers and interviewed key
individuals from AASHTO, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, and the
Environmental   Defense Fund to understand the automated highway system
concept, as well as its benefits and drawbacks. We discussed the Automated
Highway System program and its new focus with officials from ITS’ Joint
Program Office, NHTSA, FHWA, and the President’s Office of Science and
Technology Policy, as well as with knowledgeable individuals from the
Consortium and the Institute for Transportation Engineers.

9                     GAOLRCED-97-177R DOT’s Automated Highway System Program

Major contributors  to this report were Joseph Christoff, Michael Hartnett, David
Lichtenfeld, and Gail Marnik. Please call me at (202) 512-2834 if you or your
staff have any questions.

Sincerely yours,

Director,   Transportation

  10                         GAOIRCED-9’7-177R DOT’s Automated Highway System Program
ENCLOSURE          I                                                               ENCLOSURE          I

                            PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FUNDING FOR THE
                           AUTOMCATED HIGHWAY SYSTEM PROGRAM,
                                     FISCAL YEARS 1993-97

Dollars in millions

                                    1993-94          1995         1996       (planned)        Total

 Federal sharea                                     $ 19.2       $ 16.5         $ 22.0       $71.8
 Consortium’s      share                               2.5          8.2            8.5

 Total commitments

 Federal                             $ 14.1          $ 8.8       $ 19.4                      $ 42.3
                                              b                                      c
 Consortium                                            2.5          8.2                        10.7

 Total expenditures,                                                                 c
 fiscal years 1993-96                 $ 14.1        $11.3         $ 27.6                     $ 53.0

“Total federal commitment includes both contract authority   granted under ISTEA and funds
provided through the appropriations process.

bNot applicable.

‘Not available.

Source:     DOT.

(34294 1)

11                                GAOLRCED-97-177R      DOT’s Automated Highway System Program
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