Visualize a world where you could drive from Fargo to Frisco without touching the steering wheel.

Picture summoning your car via remote at a crowded mall, and having it drive itself over to pick you up. Imagine your driver’s seat is a swivel chair, your dashboard a computer, a complete mobile work space ready for long road trips.

This world, the world of autonomous vehicles, is not far off, according to North Dakota native Marlo Anderson. As host of the radio talk show the Tech Ranch, a role that earned him the title the “Guru of Geek,” Anderson has reported extensively on autonomous vehicles – and even rode in one himself.

“The autonomous car is already a reality,” Anderson said.  “You’re going to start seeing the vehicles this year. It’s not called autonomous features, but you have crash avoidance technology, lane keeping technology, emergency braking on its own – you’re going to see these things being added to the vehicle.”

autonomous corridor

Just the past five months, America’s largest automobile and technology companies have made major strides towards developing autonomous vehicles.

In November, Microsoft and Volvo announced a joint deal to work towards developing driverless cars. In January, GM and Lyft announced they were joining forces to create an entire national network of self-driving cars.

Google already has a fleet of self driving cars on the streets in certain cities (with some trial and error). Apple may not be far behind with the mysterious “Project Titan.” Elon Musk, of course, has said Tesla vehicles will be driving themselves in two years.

In North Dakota, Anderson and the Central North American Trade Corridor Association are paving the way for these autonomous vehicles – quite literally.

The Autonomous Friendly Corridor

Since 2014, Anderson and a small team have been working on a project called the Autonomous Friendly Corridor. The vision is to use Highway 83 as a corridor for unmanned vehicles to transport goods for commerce. The highway is over 1,885 miles long, stretching through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, even crossing into Manitoba and Mexico.

But unlike your average interstate, the corridor would allow for unmanned vehicles in commerce to mingle with the other drivers using the road.

There is potential too, Anderson said, for the airspace above the corridor, about 15-20 miles wide, to be designated for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in commerce as well.

Land Ports would be situated every 200 miles, he said, where the vehicles can be refueled and serviced, cargo unloaded or added, and drones can land and be serviced as well.

“It really opens up trade routes to the Hudson Bay – really moves a lot of our products in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, to north and south routes,” he said.

The Autonomous Friendly Corridor

The Autonomous Friendly Corridor

Currently Anderson is raising support and funds for the corridor, and has met with Congressman Cramer, Senator Heitkamp, Senator Hoeven, and Doug Burgum to discuss their interest in the project. All have been interested, he said.

A 4-billion-dollar budget

President Obama is putting federal dollars into the game as well. About four billion dollars, to be exact.

On January 14, Department of Transportation (DOT) secretary Anthony Foxx announced the President’s 2017 fiscal year budget proposal to put $3.9 billion towards developing innovation in the self-driving car industry.

The 10-year plan would include pilot programs to test “connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country, and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles,” the DOT wrote.

The proposal will also work towards creating a model policy framework for autonomous vehicles. Currently, North Dakota is among only a few states that have autonomous-car-related legislation, along with Nevada, California, Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.

Although the proposal has not yet gone through Congress, and Anderson suspects the budget may go down after that process, backing from the government will significantly boost the advancement of projects like the Autonomous Friendly Corridor, he said.

Anderson went on to explain that there will be a competition as to which corridors will access the funding. There are only a few other similar projects in the country, like this one in Northern Virginia. The fact that the Autonomous Friendly Corridor is the most developed, deals with border control, and ties in commerce and UAVs, positions it as a likely front runner, Anderson said.

“We feel that our corridor is going to be very interesting to them and we have a head start on it already,” he said. “We think we’re very well positioned to hopefully tap into the fund and make our corridor our reality.”

“I’m hopeful that by 2020 that we’ll at least have some limited use,” he said.


Photos courtesy of Google, Marlo Anderson, and CNTCA.

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Marisa Jackels