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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 59· No. 2 > The National AHS Consortium

Winter 1995
Vol. 59· No. 2

The National AHS Consortium - A New Way of Doing Business

by Lyle Saxton

The selection of the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC) to develop, in partnership with the Department of Transportation (DOT), the prototype for an Automated Highway System (AHS) was a momentous occasion for two reasons.

First, on Oct. 7, 1994, when Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater signed the NAHSC agreement, it marked the embarkation of the United States on a major research program to develop what is expected to be the next significant evolutionary stage of our vehicle-highway transportation system.

The agreement was signed with a national consortium led by General Motors. Other principal members include the California DOT, Bechtel, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Delco Electronics, Hughes Aircraft, the University of California Partners for Advanced Transit in Highways, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Martin Marietta. The cooperative agreement is for approximately seven years, and the initial budget is for approximately $200 million, which will be cost shared with the federal government funding up to 80 percent. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 requires a demonstration of a prototype AHS in 1997.

Second, and perhaps of equal significance, is how this important program is being undertaken by DOT. It clearly is not "business as usual" and, in fact, represents a major shift in how the federal government intends to work as a partner with other public and private interests in major programs of mutual interest.

But before we explore this new approach, what is AHS and why is it important to the nation's transportation future? In an AHS, vehicles similar to today's automobiles, trucks, and buses will be equipped with additional communications and control technology so they can operate in dedicated lanes under automated control. In other words, the vehicle's steering, accelerating, and braking will be controlled by the system rather than by the driver. The driving process will become much more consistent and efficient through this machine control; congestion on the AHS facility can be markedly reduced; safety will be enhanced through elimination of driver error; trip quality will greatly improve; and the overall performance of the automated vehicle-highway system will be substantially superior to manual control.

As Secretary Peña noted, AHS in high-priority corridors offers substantial improvements in safety, trip predictability, inclement weather operation, mobility, and air quality.

"The development of an automated highway system holds the realistic promise of being the next means of strengthening the performance of our nation's highway system similar to the impact of the interstate highway system," said FHWA Administrator Slater.

An article in the Summer 1994 issue of Public Roads elaborated on the promise of AHS to the American motoring public. The article also noted how our society is increasingly applying modern technology and automation to modern needs. The article concluded, "Driving is a natural candidate for automation. It will free people from performing an often frustratingly tedious, tremendously time-consuming chore. It will also ensure that the chore is performed more safely, quickly, reliably, and efficiently than people could ever do unassisted."

But what is different about how the federal government is undertaking this program, and why does it represent a paradigm shift in thinking and approach? With the establishment of NAHSC, DOT completed a process that took approximately three years to evolve, debate, and get approval and "buy-in" from within.

Normally, the federal government approaches major system developments as the customer and presumed end user of the program output and products. Thus, when buying a new fighter aircraft or a Coast Guard cutter, the government appropriately is in control, and the government prepares specifications and related documentation defining what it wants. It then manages the development and follow-on activities to assure it gets its desired product.

However, we in the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program -- formerly the Intelligent Vehicle-Highway System program -- have recognized from the program's roots that this traditional approach is not always appropriate, and so, the ITS program is a public and private partnership. The AHS program is fundamentally grounded on the ITS principle.

AHS recognizes that other interests, not the federal government, will be the ones that own, operate, and maintain future AHS facilities. Others will make the hard decisions to design, build, market, and warrant AHS vehicles. Thus, these AHS "stakeholders" are indeed the ones who will ultimately decide when an AHS will be marketed and deployed, and their actions and decisions will largely decide the success of AHS. These AHS stakeholders include many groups, but core members are the automotive industry; the highway design industry; highway owners and operators, including state and local governments; and major vehicle electronics and system control suppliers.

Thus, this major federally sponsored initiative was undertaken as a cooperative program between DOT and a national consortium, and the program revolves around these major AHS stakeholders. In this partnership, DOT is a member of the consortium. DOT will fully participate in the consortium's activities and programs, but DOT will not seek to dictatorially manage and control the decisions and directions of the consortium.

In this undertaking, NAHSC will be much more than just a technical or system development activity. In fact, the scope of its responsibilities will be wide ranging and will include many functions that would have been performed by the federal government in a more conventional federal procurement. These consortium responsibilities include:

  • Providing leadership and focus to the nation's AHS effort
  • Representing the major categories of "stakeholders" that will design, build, deploy, and operate AHS.
  • Understanding and pursuing the vision, goals, purpose, and desired cooperative relationships of the program.
  • Managing this national effort and achieving the program's goals.

Nevertheless, this does not relieve the federal government of important responsibilities in this program. DOT's role in this phase of the AHS program is to:

  • Facilitate the establishment of this cooperative relationship by funding a share of the costs.
  • Work cooperatively with the consortium to provide focus and leadership to the nation's AHS effort.
  • Undertake -- in coordination with the consortium -- selected, essential studies and provide the results to NAHSC.
  • Represent the public interest to ensure that AHS meets the transportation and societal interests of the nation.
  • Participate in all major program decisions.

As noted earlier, DOT did not enter into this new management paradigm casually and without considerable analysis of alternative approaches. These discussions included the most senior executive levels of DOT. It is a testimony to this open process within the department that what emerged was a commitment to undertake this significant AHS program in partnership with the non-federal stakeholders.

This significant transportation program is expected to get considerable public visibility and scrutiny in coming years. How well it succeeds will not only be a test of how technology and system issues are resolved; it will also be a test of the new public and private partnership for developing and implementing meaningful new solutions to transportation needs. NAHSC, with its vehicle-highway stakeholders, is expected to be an evolving showcase of the merits of this new approach.

FHWA Administrator Rodney Slater and General Motors, VP, George Peapples.

FHWA Administrator Rodney Slater and General Motors, VP, George Peapples.

Lyle Saxton is the director of FHWA's Office of Safety and Traffic Operations Research and Development at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va. One of his primary responsibilities is the management of the Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems R&D program of FHWA. He is an electrical engineer, and his initial career was in spacecraft system design. He joined FHWA in 1968. Saxton has received the U.S. DOT Secretary's Award for Meritorious Achievement, and in 1991, he received the Transportation Research Board's highest award, the Roy W. Crum Distinguished Service Award, for his "outstanding achievement in the field of highway research."

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