The Autonomous Vehicle Corridor

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Most Prominent Transportation Initiatives in Puget Sound

By William Hillis

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William Hillis

Broker & Research Editor, Realogics Sotheby's International Realty

"Some aspects of an autonomous vehicle corridor are bound to spawn yet-imagined complementary products and systems." 


It’s 6:15 a.m., and Thea is running late. As her car exits her garage in Anacortes, she knows that on any other weekday, she can easily make it to her job in Everett by 8:00 a.m. But today she has a meeting in Seattle. She has prepaid her monthly expressway tolls for $68. But she can’t afford to be delayed, and traffic in Interstate 5’s second-tier lanes will slow to less than 20 mph south of Marysville. The premium lane will cost her $130 for a single round-trip.


Thea drowsily surveys the fog-blanketed Skagit Valley as she is carried across the Duane Berentson Bridge. She’ll need to make a decision before she reaches the gated entrance to I-5 at Burlington. As if reading her mind, her car sends her an onscreen message and a voice reminds her of her scheduled trip details. “Do you want to change your plans?” Thea reluctantly selects a change. She is offered a choice of route or lane change options, among which she chooses “lane change” followed by “premium.”

Arriving at the gated on-ramp to I-5, her car is recognized and the entry barrier is raised. Her car is guided into the center of the forked on-ramps to the expressway. To her left is the dedicated freight lane; to her right are the second-tier lanes she usually takes to Everett. Within a few seconds, her car accelerates to 70 mph. Thea switches her Sirius XM channel to Symphony Hall, and dozes off in the left front passenger seat.

This is a plausible story of the future under plans proposed in a September 2017 report by Madrona Venture Group in cooperation with Microsoft. Their report declares that by 2040, “all of I-5 be completely autonomous, and no human-driven cars be allowed on the highway.” That is, the expressways from Vancouver BC to Tijuana will be reserved for Level 5 vehicles, those that meet the Society of Automotive Engineers’ definition of complete vehicle autonomy. The authors of the report project that the technology for these vehicles will be available within the next three years (by 2020).

This proposal coincides with Transportation 2040 funding source assumptions by the Transportation Futures Task Force assembled by the Puget Sound Regional Council. Those assumptions are that by 2040, our current freeway system will be fully tolled, with mileage fees in place and with the constitutionally dedicated motor fuel taxes having been phased out. Like the current tolls on I-405 and three other tolled facilities, system-wide tolls would be set by the seven governor-appointed members of the Washington State Transportation Commission, not by elected members of the State Legislature.

Such a system requires that every vehicle on the controlled guideway be connected. Whether the interplay among cars and the roadway is centrally controlled or hive-like, the cars won’t be any more autonomous than bees or ants. Therefore the system must be closed to human-driven cars; and by the time that is carried out, there must be a threshold proportion of vehicles that meet the requirements in order to prevent societal disruption. So the semi-autonomous features in the car you drive today, such as parking assistance, will have both a semi-autonomous mode and a fully autonomous mode that can be remotely “switched on” at some future date certain. This is how control of the highways funded by our grandfathers’ gas tax will be transferred to a closed, automated system that you will pay to use from then on. 

Industry experts question whether such a system can be implemented so completely while remaining affordable and accessible to all drivers. GM's director of autonomous vehicle integration, Scott Miller, recently dismissed claims by Tesla CEO Elon Musk that that company’s Model 3, already in production, will allow Level 5 capability. Miller said, "To think you can see everything you need for a level five autonomous car [full self-driving] with cameras and radar, I don't know how you do that."

Each of the competing systems being tested by GM cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars, and GM is some ways away from getting the cost low enough to be commercially viable.”

If it is ultimately achieved, some aspects of an autonomous vehicle corridor are bound to spawn yet-unimagined complementary products and home- or community-based systems in areas along and adjacent to the corridor. In more affluent communities, these will tend to enhance the comforts enjoyed by residents. 

Impact: Systems and products developed to complement autonomous vehicles may be expected to add value to homes in affluent areas in or adjacent to the corridor. (Note that as discussed in "Toll Futures on I-405 and Beyond," if applied system-wide, mileage fees and especially tolls will tend to suppress real estate prices in rural counties, provoking legislative resistance.)