Autonomous update: Obama, DOT call for $4B investment to ‘accelerate’ self-driving vehicle development

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Updated Oct 27, 2016

Trucking's Future Now - Driver in Autonomous TruckFollowing a bevy of major autonomous vehicle announcements last year, including the unveiling of the U.S.’ first road-legal Class 8 automated vehicle last May, I was left wondering, like many, whether a lack of investment in vehicle automation by state governments and the U.S. government would, at best, place unnecessary drag on the development of autonomous vehicles or, at worst, grind it to a halt.

I don’t mean investments in the development of the technology itself, necessarily, though that likely would aid private sector initiatives. Rather, investments in infrastructure, as both the federal government and state governments hold the keys to a huge piece of the autonomous puzzle: The highways themselves and the infrastructure surrounding them.

Smart investments there could help the private sector usher in the autonomous age much quicker than forcing companies like Google and Daimler to develop 21st century vehicles to operate on 19th Century infrastructure (America began paving roads in the late 1800s.).

The task at hand for companies leading the autonomous charge, which includes tech companies like Apple and Google along with traditional automotive players like Daimler, has been to make the vehicles operate within the existing infrastructure.

Automated vehicles like Freightliner’s Inspiration are not making operating decisions based on telematic connections to smart highways or vehicle-to-vehicle communication. They instead rely on a combination of sensory inputs like lane markers, road signs, radar, cameras and GPS mapping to do the job.

Substitute mirrors for cameras in that list and it’s essentially the same few directives human eyes and brains use behind the wheel to operate a vehicle manually.

Two recent news items out of the White House, however, show at least some interest in a unified approach to managing the advent of the autonomous era and a potential starting point to broader government interest in advancing such technology.

For starters, days after President Obama’s final State of the Union address, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in Detroit initiatives his department has planned for 2016 designed to, the DOT says, “accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation.”

Aside from a requested $4 billion investment from Congress into automated tech, Foxx said the DOT this year hopes to develop a policy model for states looking to invite automated vehicles to their roadways, in hopes of building a “common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles,” per the DOT’s announcement.

Foxx also pressed manufacturers to submit exemption requests to the DOT asking to “allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles,” according to the DOT, potentially to the tune of 2,500 vehicles per request if regulators “determine that an exemption would ease the development of new safety features.”

Secondly, in the days following Foxx’s automated-focused visit to Detroit, President Obama himself got in on the autonomous action at the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit. Obama received a one-on-one tour at the booth of trucking industry supplier and transmission maker ZF, who’s working on developing some of the components used in vehicle automation.

Here’s the video of Obama’s visit with ZF’s Brian Johnson, manager of the company’s corporate communications, as the two talk automated tech and investments ZF has made into smarter vehicles: