Surface Transportation

The Department of Transportation Proposes Significant Changes to Its Automated Highway System Program Gao ID: RCED-97-177R June 9, 1997

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the current goals and future direction of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Automated Highway System program, focusing 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.

GAO noted that: (1) 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; (2) 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; (3) however, automated highway system analysts have noted that before these benefits can be realized, significant operational issues will have to be resolved; (4) 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; (5) these issues have been studied but not yet resolved under the Automated Highway System program's initial research efforts; (6) 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; (7) 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; (8) 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; (9) for example, the program will focus on collision avoidance warning systems that notify drivers when they are too close to other vehicles; (10) 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; (11) the program's shift from a long- to a short-term focus creates uncertainties, including: (a) whether the public/private consortium leading the Automated Highway System program will restructure its membership or dissolve; (b) how the refocused program will coordinate its research with comparable research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and (c) how DOT will sustain investments in important long-term, high-risk research; and (12) DOT officials expect to resolve many of these issues by the end of the summer.

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