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Autonomous vehicles could be used to reduce traffic and streamline hurricane evacuations, according to an LSU professor. In 2017, EasyMile's EZ10 autonomous vehicle was in New Orleans during a cross-country road trip presented by Transdev North America. The shuttle can transport up to 12 people with a cruising speed of 20 km/h and maximum speed of 40 km/h.

Autonomous vehicles in Louisiana have potential to reduce congestion on roadways across the state and even enable faster hurricane evacuations according to research conducted by an LSU professor who shared the information with the Baton Rouge Rotary Club on Wednesday. 

“We all look out at I-10 and it’s congested a lot of the time during the day but you could pack cars in very closely together, in theory you could move 20 times as much traffic in the same amount of time than if you had drivers,” said Brian Wolshon, LSU professor in civil engineering and director of the Gulf Coast Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency.

There are five levels of automation in vehicles dubbed self-driving and many existing vehicles on the road are already equipped with level two automation with features such as safety braking, lateral lane control and cruise control. 

Level five autonomous vehicles, which require no driver assistance and use a computer to press the gas pedal, brake and steer, could change the way people travel. 

For example, if vehicles were autonomous and also connected which means vehicles could communicate with each other using data networks the average commute could be shorter and move more people. 

"You don't need the electricity and you don't need the infrastructure because the vehicles will separate themselves," Wolshon said. "The problem right now is really the driver."

A new law that allows autonomous vehicles on the roads in Louisiana went into effect on Aug. 1 but it applied to commercial vehicles, such as tractor trailers. The law only applies to fully autonomous commercial vehicles which provided written notice to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and have insurance coverage of at least $2 million. In the case of an accident, the autonomous vehicle must remain at the scene and share relevant insurance information. The Office of Motor Vehicles in Louisiana has jurisdiction over autonomous vehicles in the state. 

The use of autonomous vehicles could expand beyond day-to-day commuting.

Louisiana faces hurricanes and sometimes requires mandatory evacuations. If autonomous vehicles were used during a hurricane evacuation it would enable residents to arrive at shelters faster because the routes would be optimized and vehicles could communicate with each other to reduce traffic jams. 

The technology and legal framework to use autonomous vehicles for emergency evacuations exists but there hasn't been as much participation from the private sector yet. That's something the U.S. Department of Transportation has been pushing for several years after research into the topic. Louisiana could be a test bed for hurricane evacuations using autonomous vehicles.

"Louisiana without a doubt is the world leader, we can move more people in shorter amounts of time in an emergency situation than anywhere else," he said. "We have a great plan here but we could enhance it, we could use some of these technologies in an evacuation situation."

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.