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Mapping the Future of Autonomous Vehicles

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “7 State & Local Tech Trends to Watch.” Download the full guide here.

Reaching the point where most cars on the road are driverless requires mapping vast road networks. State and local governments are creating this future by collecting the necessary data for autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles require hyper-accurate, high-resolution maps to correctly navigate terrain without humans. These maps note features such as cracks, potholes and lane markings. They also ensure that autonomous vehicles efficiently and safely carry humans to their destinations.

Data mapping has municipal, statewide and national potential for several reasons. Establishing driverless traffic is expected to reduce human error, improve public safety and produce more affordable transit. The result is expected to be fewer accidents with data at the wheel.

Michigan’s Department of Transportation (MDOT) is now hoping to pen another chapter in the state’s automotive history with autonomous vehicles. Forty-four MDOT employees are driving across Southeastern Michigan’s major highways through 2018 and preparing the way for this exciting new technology.

Cameras attached to this fleet collect data that will improve autonomous vehicle driving. They map Michigan’s road features by gathering information sent to a single data platform. The database is intended to help autonomous vehicles traversing the mapped terrain.

So far, the cameras are documenting lane markings, pavement cracks, potholes and other features. The process is often difficult because capturing an entire highway takes three to six scans of all its lanes.

“Wide deployment of automated vehicles is going to take a while,” said John Peracchio, Co-Chairman of Michigan’s Council on Future Mobility within MDOT. “We need resolution down to centimeters for safe operations. This isn’t simple: It’s like mapping with stone knives and bear skins – and the map doesn’t exist anywhere.”

MDOT’s database will contain valuable information for boosting autonomous vehicle efficiency and safety. Peracchio said that it will also attract business investments and related jobs to Michigan. The goal is an autonomous vehicle ecosystem that gives citizens affordable transit.

“The purpose is making Michigan the place on Earth for research, development and deployment of highly automated vehicles,” he said. “We have an asset, a research tool, that is attractive to any car company, major supplier or academic institution that wants to pursue the development of technologies associated with connected and automated vehicles.”

Peracchio said that GPS-enabled devices are currently capable of reliably locating a vehicle within about 2 meters. The short-term objective, he continued, is reducing that metric to roughly 1 meter. MDOT is conducting its pilot program alongside Continental AG, a leading automotive parts manufacturer. The collaboration shows the benefit of public/private partnerships for developing new technologies.

“It wouldn’t have happened except for Continental having the hardware and software to make it happen,” he said. “The state provides the vehicles, but they compile the map database. To my knowledge, no other state in the union will have such an asset.”

The stakes are high for ensuring that autonomous vehicles are safe. Roadways like Michigan’s host bikers, drivers, pedestrians and road workers who are potentially endangered by the technology’s failures. Animals are also at risk, and severe weather raises the bar for harmless driving by autonomous vehicles.

New pitfalls may also emerge, however, as the technology enabling autonomous vehicles evolves. As the network of physical devices exchanging data grows, so does the amount of cyberthreats. Autonomous vehicles are no exception because of their potential for vulnerable connections.

“The minute you allow the infrastructure access to the vehicle, you have the potential for bad actors doing bad things,” Peracchio said. “I’m talking about actually getting access to the vehicle’s operating system. It’s scary stuff. Imagine going 70 miles an hour and your anti-lock brakes kick in.”

Autonomous vehicles present many possible benefits, however, in addition to the risks associated with them. Besides potentially decreasing accidents, the technology could enable cheap, dependable and safe transportation for less fortunate demographics.

“It addresses what we in the transportation world call the ‘first mile/last mile’ problem or getting people from their front door to reliable transit or other forms of transportation,” Peracchio said. “It could be that autonomous vehicles assist with that. It’s enabling access to reliable transportation for the disabled, the elderly and the economically disadvantaged. We have a long way to go.”

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Declan Riordan

Really exciting that this is starting to gain real traction! Self-driving cars have been a widely-held dream for a long time, so seeing it start to take shape is very interesting. Lots of thought to go into it, though!