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Self-driving vehicles addressed at January transportation infrastructure meeting in nation’s capital


When will most vehicles on the nation’s roads and highways be of the self-driving variety?


We’re probably much closer to that being the case than you think, says Mike Patterson, vice president and Department of Transportation national practice consultant at HNTB in Oklahoma City.

Self-driving vehicles, the effects of climate change and other factors that impact the future of transportation infrastructure in the U.S. were among topics Patterson and others discussed at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board Jan. 8-12 in Washington, D.C.


The meeting consisted of more than 100 committees and attracted more than 12,000 attendees from several countries, Patterson said, and focused on the topic of infrastructure resiliency.


“We debated just about any facet of the future of transportation you can think of,” he said, “from what kind of aggregate is best in concrete to the overall future of transportation funding.”


Perhaps the most intriguing topic explored: How will self-driving vehicles affect the transportation infrastructure future?


Patterson says that while skepticism abounds about the possibility of most vehicles soon being self-driving, many present-day features like adaptive cruise control have paved the way for a driverless reality.


“Manufacturers are just one step away,” he said. “Self-driving has been an evolutionary process.”


Self-driving vehicles will allow for a great quantity of traffic to share the road, Patterson said, due to programming that will control all maneuvers. 


“The notion is that once we’re a predominantly self-driving vehicle society, what were six-lane highways can be transformed into eight-lane highways just by re-striping the road,” he said. “Accounting for that kind of traffic capacity is huge.”


Accounting for remaining driver-operated vehicles in a self-driving vehicle environment remains a problem to be addressed, Patterson added. 


“Once we have roadways designed for self-driving vehicles and along comes a vehicle without the new technology, how do we deal with that?” he said. “We’ll have a person driving on what will be narrower lanes with much less room for driver error.


“There are still a lot of people who don’t think (self-driving) will happen on a large scale,” he added, noting that in his experience the word “driverless” still concerns people. “But we have to have our roadways ready for it when it does.”

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