NextGen Supply Chain with Kevin Lacy, North Carolina Department of Transportation

The director of mobility for the North Carolina Department of Transportation looks at what’s next for autonomous vehicles.

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This month we talked with Kevin Lacy, director of the transportation, mobility and safety division for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The Division is responsible for safe and efficient movement of all modes of transportation through research and development of effective policies to improve traffic flow and safety for all. The combined budget of the Division exceeds $100 million.

NextGen Supply Chain: Why is North Carolina’s Department of Transportation so involved with the move to autonomous vehicles?

Lacy: Short term, we want to be sure that this state is an engaged and active participant in helping to move the technology forward. Long term, autonomous vehicles are all about saving lives. More than 1,400 people died on North Carolina roads in 2016. Our goal is to get to zero highway deaths. That requires an end to car crashes, and autonomous vehicles are our best shot at getting there.

NextGen Supply Chain: I assume North Carolina is not alone here and that there are other states actively supporting development of autonomous vehicles on their roadways.
Lacy: In fact, several states are involved already.

Michigan, Florida and California are some examples. Michigan, of course, has a huge investment in the auto industry already. As home to Silicon Valley and high tech, California is a natural leader for autonomous vehicles. And Florida has laws that say “come drive here” and has gone so far as to build autonomous vehicle test tracks. 

North Carolina is what I call a close follower. We’ve always been known as a good roads state with more than 80,000 miles of roads. We have existing rural and urban roads across many geographies and weather conditions that autonomous vehicles need to prove themselves on.

It’s important to keep in mind here that autonomous vehicles are a competition, a race. The quickest and best companies at it will make billions if not trillions from the technology. Everybody wins when North Carolina and others facilitate autonomous vehicle development. 

NextGen Supply Chain: I’ve heard that state route N.C. 540 fits into the picture here. How so? 

Lacy: Also known as Triangle Expressway, N.C. 540 is an 18.8 mile stretch of road built five or six years ago. When it’s completely built out, it will be a loop around Raleigh. But for now, the autonomous vehicle pioneers are using it, with our help, as a proving ground for the technology. It has the elements I mentioned earlier that allow autonomous vehicles to be tested in a range of conditions.

We know autonomous vehicles have been tested on it, and elsewhere in the state, with a driver. By state law, there are no restrictions on a vehicle as long as it has a driver. But there are times when developers want to go driverless.

To that end, the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year named North Carolina one of 10 proving ground pilot sites for testing autonomous vehicles. N.C. 540 will be used for self-driving vehicle testing as a result. 

NextGen Supply Chain: Is there any legislation in process or on the horizon to advance autonomous vehicle technology?

Lacy: On December 1, House Bill 469 goes into effect. It regulates the operation of fully autonomous vehicles on the public highways of North Carolina. The bill establishes the conditions that an autonomous vehicle must fulfill before it can be driven without a driver in the state. It covers everything from vehicle registration to minimum age of unsupervised minors in the car to responsibility for moving violations. Needless to say, they also have to follow the established rules of the road, too.

This is an important step in the development of autonomous vehicles. While many have talked about building separate roadways for them, that will not happen in North Carolina.

NextGen Supply Chain: It sure sounds like you and the state see autonomous vehicles on the roads as inevitable at this point.

Lacy:We do. But it will happen over time. I expect that before I hit 30 years with the department, 2023 to be precise, we will have autonomous vehicles on the roads. But I also expect a mixed fleet orf autonomous and human driven vehicles for the next 25 – 30 years. I hired a new engineer earlier this year. His entire career will be this transition from nothing to completely autonomous vehicles.

That said, public acceptance will be the ultimate determiner of how quickly and completely autonomous vehicles take over. Always keep that in mind.

Gary Forger is contributing editor of NextGen Supply Chain. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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