SHERIDAN — Wyoming Department of Transportation director Bill Panos testified before Congress last week about the need for transportation departments to prepare for the widespread deployment of autonomous and connected vehicles. 

According to Panos’s testimony, autonomous and connected vehicles have the potential to improve safety and quality of life for some drivers, but their presence on the roads will require DOTs around the country to prepare by installing new infrastructure and making changes to existing infrastructure. 

Locally, Panos said WYDOT has begun to prepare for autonomous and connected vehicles in a number of ways. 

“WYDOT, like a lot of DOTs around the country, is active in the area of connected and autonomous vehicles,” Panos said. “Not just personal or non-commercial vehicles like our cars and SUVs, but also freight and the movement of freight through our nation’s interstate system.”

Connected vehicles are vehicles equipped with technology that will let them transmit and receive messages from other connected vehicles as well as roadside units.

If a connected vehicle gets into an accident it can communicate with nearby connected vehicles and the roadside units to let them know the location of the accident and to slow down when approaching it. This system becomes especially useful in conditions where visibility is limited, like a blizzard.

Autonomous vehicles take that technology a step further. Not only would an autonomous car be able to detect an accident, it will automatically slow down and reroute to avoid the accident.

“But we have to connect vehicles before we can make them autonomous,” Panos said.

Wyoming is one of three states that received a grant from the US Department of Transportation in 2015 to participate in a connected vehicle pilot program. The program is being tested along I-80, in southern Wyoming, which has seen frequent accidents due to extreme weather conditions.

USDOT is also funding pilot programs in Tampa, Florida, and New York City. Panos said the three sites were chosen to test the technology in different conditions: New York traffic is extremely dense; weather in Tampa is hot and humid; and Wyoming experiences severe snowstorms and high winds.

Ali Ragan, a WYDOT project manager, said WYDOT hopes the implementation of connected vehicles along I-80 can improve safety. 

“There is a very real need on I-80 to address some of the safety issues on the highway and we think connected-vehicle technology will be a good way to address specifically the problems commercial vehicle operators face on the road,” Ragan said.

The vehicles will require the installation of roadside units, though, that can facilitate communication between the vehicles as well as WYDOT’s central dispatch.

“Along I-80 we’re installing about 75 roadside units, which use ‘dedicated short-range communication,’ which is similar to Wi-Fi but has a faster connection,” Ragan said.

Initially, Panos said the state installed the technology in snow plows and emergency vehicles but is planing on equipping several hundred trucks with connected-vehicle technology next year. 

In addition to the installation of new infrastructure, Panos said connected and autonomous vehicles may require improvements to existing infrastructure. For instance, he said it’s not yet clear whether things like potholes, incorrect striping on roads or road signs in disrepair could interfere with the function of these vehicles.

Further, autonomous vehicles could require changes to the administrative procedures of transportation departments, such as the issuing of drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations. In order for WYDOT to adapt to the changes these vehicles will necessitate, Panos said it has to start now.