State stud­ies lanes for driver­less ve­hi­cles

I-94 may ded­i­cate space to such ve­hi­cles thanks to Fox­conn’s pres­ence

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Rick Romell

Spurred by Fox­conn Tech­nol­ogy Group and its plans for a mega-fac­tory in Racine County, state high­way plan­ners are study­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of in­clud­ing special lanes for driver­less ve­hi­cles on I-94.

Should that come to pass — and at this point it is only some­thing be­ing con­tem­plated — it would put Wis­con­sin in the van­guard of what many be­lieve will be a key part of trans­porta­tion in the fu­ture.

Driver­less cars have been de­vel­oped and are be­ing tested, but there are no high­way lanes ded­i­cated to so­called au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, a spokesman with the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion said.

Word of the pos­si­ble de­vel­op­ment here emerged Mon­day from Tim Sheehy, pres­i­dent of the Metropoli­tan Milwaukee As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­merce, as he spoke at a meet­ing of the Greater Milwaukee Com­mit­tee on the chal­lenges the re­gion faces in pre­par­ing for Fox­conn.

Among those chal­lenges are in­creased traf­fic and the prob­lem of get­ting huge num­bers of work­ers — Fox­conn says it will em­ploy as many as 13,000 — to a semi-ru­ral area 8 miles west of down­town Racine and more than 20 miles from down­town Milwaukee.

But with state money ear­marked to widen I-94 to eight lanes and plans in place to im­prove lo­cal roads, Sheehy said re­gional of­fi­cials “thought we were ahead of the curve” on traf­fic is­sues.

Then they briefed Fox­conn on the ac­com­plish­ments.

“And we were all dumb­struck,” Sheehy said, “when they looked at us and said, ‘So where’s the au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle lane?’ ”

As a re­sult, he said, state trans­porta­tion plan­ners were asked to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity. The Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is do­ing just that, a spokesman said Mon­day.

“Yes, it is some­thing we are look­ing

“And we were all dumb­struck when (Fox­conn of­fi­cials) looked at us and said, ‘So where’s the au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle lane?’” Tim Sheehy, pres­i­dent of the Metropoli­tan Milwaukee As­so­ci­a­tion of Com­merce

at,” said Michael Pyritz, spokesman for the depart­ment’s south­east re­gion.

Pyritz said the process of eval­u­at­ing and mak­ing fi­nal de­ci­sions on up­grades to I-94 and other roads near the planned Fox­conn com­plex in Mount Pleas­ant “is a work in progress,” with many op­tions be­ing weighed.

“It’s on the ta­ble,” he said of ded­i­cated lanes for driver­less ve­hi­cles, “but boy, there’s a lot of stuff on the ta­ble.”

One pos­si­bil­ity, Sheehy said, would be driver­less lanes be­tween the Fox­conn plant and Milwaukee’s Mitchell In­ter­na­tional Air­port as a way to move sup­plies and prod­ucts to and from the fac­tory.

He said the fact that Fox­conn ex­ec­u­tives brought up the use of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles in­di­cated the vi­sion the com­pany is bring­ing to the project.

“We’re think­ing about two years down the road; they’re think­ing 20 years down the road,” Sheehy said.

Tai­wan-based Fox­conn is a $135 bil­lion con­tract man­u­fac­turer that em­ploys hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers, mostly in China. The firm is best known for pro­duc­ing the iPhone for Ap­ple.

Aided by up to $3 bil­lion in state in­cen­tives and po­ten­tially an­other $764 mil­lion in lo­cal as­sis­tance and in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, Fox­conn has said it will build a $10 bil­lion fac­tory — with floor space equal to more than 130 Wal­mart Su­per­centers — for the man­u­fac­ture of ul­tra-high-def­i­ni­tion liq­uid crys­tal dis­play pan­els.

The com­pany en­vi­sions the pan­els play­ing an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in fields such as crowd se­cu­rity, medicine, ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing and for dis­plays in driver­less cars.

While such ve­hi­cles are still in the test­ing stages, the idea of ded­i­cat­ing high­way lanes for them is be­ing ex­plored else­where too.

In the Pa­cific North­west, Seat­tle­based Madrona Ven­ture Group is propos­ing to de­velop a lane for driver­less cars on I-5 be­tween Seat­tle and Van­cou­ver, Bri­tish Columbia, over the next five to 15 years.

Seat­tle is home to Mi­crosoft and Ama­zon, both of which are build­ing en­gi­neer­ing hubs in Van­cou­ver.

Mean­while, firms such as Tesla Inc., Al­pha­bet Inc.’s Waymo and Gen­eral Mo­tors Co. and Ford Mo­tor Co. are road-test­ing driver­less cars.

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