Transportation Challenges & Opportunities in Kentucky

Kentucky is enormously diverse – in terms of topography, population, and mobility needs. Over 80,000 centerline miles of roads crisscross the state, from the low, flat bottomlands of the Jackson Purchase Region in the west to the rolling hills of the Bluegrass Region and the rugged Appalachian Valley in the east. KYTC operates and maintains about 27,000 roadway miles across Kentucky’s varied landscapes. Some roads traverse isolated, lightly populated regions while others connect large metropolitan areas such as Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky. 

Having access to safe and reliable transportation is critical for giving Kentuckians the chance to participate in the workforce, pursue educational opportunities, and live independently while also striving to build more robust communities. CAVs can be a driving force for the economy and improve the safety and mobility of Kentucky’s 4.5 million residents — whether they live along a bustling urban corridor or remote stretches of highway with few road markings or signs. This section looks at opportunities and challenges through the lens of emerging vehicle technologies and discusses actions for the Cabinet, legislators, and the public to consider. 

Kentucky’s Legislative Situation

Except for state’s truck platooning statute, legislation to permit or facilitate CAV testing on public roads has not been considered by Kentucky’s General Assembly. While no laws in Kentucky explicitly preclude automakers or technology firms from testing CAVs on public roads, some companies may perceive the lack of enabling legislation and regulatory certainty as a barrier to entry. These firms prefer clear permitting requirements and unambiguous guidelines related to liability insurance, testing procedures, and electronic rules of the road. Enabling legislation helps establish a level playing field as it creates a regulatory foundation which can help inform the development of new technologies.

Moving forward, it will be critical to remove all barriers — whether real or perceived — so that Kentucky can fully participate in the coming transportation revolution. NCHRP Report 845 gives a good starting point for investigating these issues as it contains recommendations for promoting CAVs, including the enactment of legislation to permit and promote CV and/or AV testing. NCHRP Project 20-102 consists of over 30 finished and ongoing studies looking at CAVs from a number of angles — planning, data needs and acquisition, workforce needs related to CAVs at local and state agencies, safety, and implementation, among others. AAMVA has released AV 2.0 to help agencies deal with vehicle registration and permitting for CAVs and maintains an Autonomous Vehicle Information Library.

Improving Safety

Kentucky recorded nearly 134,000 collisions in 2018. These incidents resulted in 664 fatalities and almost 23,000 non-fatal injuries. While these numbers represent an improvement over 2017, Kentucky still has a long way to go to achieve the goal of zero deaths on its roads. KYTC continues to leverage a broad arsenal of countermeasures to prevent transportation- related injuries and deaths, including aggressive public education initiatives such as Buckle Up / Phone Down, Local Heroes, checkpoints, and partnerships with public health and local communities. Along with educational outreach, the Cabinet is taking steps to improve road design (e.g., increasing pavement friction, enhancing delineation along horizontal curves, installing rumble strips). But over the past 10 years crash numbers have remained stagnant. CAV technologies — both those installed on vehicles and those built into infrastructure — have the potential to meaningfully reduce crash numbers.

The promised safety benefits of CAVs are immense. CV technologies can warn drivers of upcoming traffic lights, stopped vehicles, and congestion, enabling them to adjust their driving accordingly. The USDOT has identified over 40 use cases for V2I. Various levels of automation, including full automation (Level 4 and 5 systems), can facilitate safer vehicle activity and prevent collisions. Testing and deployment of CAVs in Kentucky will accelerate efforts to achieve a safe and dependable network of roads and bridges.

Public Education and Acceptance

The public remains skeptical about CAVs, especially ADS. In some surveys, at least half of the respondents said they do not believe AVs will reduce crash injuries and fatalities, and that they would feel less safe with these vehicles on the roads. However, evidence indicates that once people are exposed to AVs (e.g., knowingly sharing the roads with them) they become more accepting of them. A recent driving simulator study done at the University of Louisville provided insights into how drivers respond to different levels of automation. During the study participants were exposed to different levels of vehicle automation (Levels 0 – 4). Researchers found that driver performance aligned with driver preference for level of AV technology. Participants least preferred Level 3 automation as it is the most complex due to switching back and forth between human driving and machine-based driving.

KYTC has surveyed Kentuckians to understand what concerns they have about CAVs. Along with concerns over safety, the survey found that commercial vehicle drivers fear that AVs will cause job losses. No evidence points toward the introduction of AVs eliminating these jobs, particularly in the near future. Some analysts expect the trucking industry will be among the first to feel the impacts of automation, but industrywide automation is not imminent. And indeed, trucking firms are especially keen to track how CAV technologies affect crash rates. But if a shift toward fully automated commercial vehicles were to occur rapidly, policy solutions may be crafted to assist displaced drivers. Currently a shortage of drivers exists, meaning that CAVs could help the industry keep pace with growing demand. Educating the public on the capabilities and limitations of emerging vehicle technologies is critical and will erase common misconceptions. 

Enhancing Mobility

Although urban areas dot Kentucky’s landscape, the state is predominantly rural. As of 2019, about 17 percent of Kentucky’s residents were currently 65 or older. By 2040 this number is expected to approach 25 percent. Over the next 20 years two-thirds of Kentucky’s counties will see population declines as growth concentrates in urban and suburban areas. The complex transportation landscape engendered by these trends will present many challenges. In urban areas, designs must balance the needs of all users and consider the impacts of CAVs. Aging populations in rural areas will have to negotiate difficulties with mobility. The latter issues could be solved, at least in part, by AV-equipped transit and paratransit services. People with disabilities and those who do not drive or who have limited transportation options can also be aided by these services. Shared mobility solutions (e.g., Mobility-as-a-Service [MaaS]) offer one strategy for enhancing the mobility of Kentucky’s residents and connecting them to needed resources. MaaS relies on smartphone apps to connect users with needed public and private transportation services. Understanding how MaaS can be optimized to equitably meet transportation challenges should be a priority for KYTC. The Cabinet will also benefit from investigating the role it can play in their implementation. 

Logistics Hubs

Kentucky is home to three industry-leading logistics firms. Two principal hubs are located at CVG. Since 2009, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in CVG’s logistics operations. In May 2019, Amazon broke ground on its new Air Hub at CVG, which is generating over $1 billion in project development and will culminate in an expansive sorting facility and up to 100 flights per day at the airport. CVG is a testing ground for automated ground tugs and is encouraging the implementation of AV technologies. Investment in Kentucky extends far beyond CVG. Fourteen fulfillment and sortation centers dot the state and employs over 12,000 Kentuckians. UPS has operated a hub at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport since the early 1980s and has invested over $2 billion in its Louisville operations. Forward-looking policies related to CAV testing and deployment will position the state as a potential testing ground and incentivize these firms – which have demonstrated ample willingness to make significant investments in the region – to evaluate new technologies and place Kentucky on the leading edge of CAV logistics applications. 

Automotive Industry

    Three major automotive manufacturers have major plant operations in Kentucky, while over 525 firms that supply parts and materials to automakers have facilities in the state. Each automaker is pursuing CAV development and is testing their vehicles throughout the county. However, they have not tapped into the opportunities that testing in Kentucky could provide. Because these automakers have established Kentucky as cornerstones of their operations, favorable laws and/or incentives could entice them to conduct at least small-scale testing in the state. Kentucky’s highways in mountainous and rural environments offer a challenging yet ideal setting in which to carry out AV pilot studies so that automakers can refine essential technologies to ensure they perform well in the most complex environments. 

    KYTC Funding and Resources

    Like many other transportation agencies, human resources and funding are stretched thin at KYTC. Nonetheless, dedicating modest resources to build up the knowledge and expertise in CAVs is important for devising responsive policies and practices. Even with limited resources, KYTC can monitor automotive industry trends and be nimble enough to respond to different technology outcomes.