Source: USA TODAY

Self-driving vehicles are synonymous with sophisticated sensors producing terabytes of data being analyzed by powerful computers. But it seems the success of this transportation revolution hinges on a decidedly low-tech material: Paint.

That’s because when it comes to getting the nation's infrastructure ready for autonomous traffic, the most critical upgrade amounts to making sure the lines on our 4 million miles of roads are solid, bright and preferably white so they can be picked up by computer vision gear.

"The (self-driving car companies) actually said make sure you have really good paint lines," says Kirk Steudle, director of Michigan's Department of Transportation. "So, where there are lines, we have to make sure they're really good."

If only things were that simple. A USA TODAY Network survey of nearly a dozen states hoping to lead the way in self-driving cars and trucks reveals varying degrees of readiness as officials balance anticipating a huge shift in mobility with a reluctance to spend limited infrastructure funds on the wrong improvements.

Twin potholes lurk in the road ahead

Two factors make it difficult for states, however eager, to dive headlong into concrete infrastructure improvements, whether that's painting lane stripes or embedding sensors in roads and traffic signals.

The first is a lack of national vision for autonomous vehicles. During his fall campaign, President Trump promised to spend upwards of $1 trillion on infrastructure needs. But so far there is no road map for securing such funds or determining how they'll be deployed or whether self-driving car-related work will be included.

The Obama administration set out proposed guidelines for how companies can effectively self-regulate. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said this month in Detroit that the Trump administration is “reviewing and updating this policy to incorporate feedback and improvements recommended by numerous stakeholders.”

In addition, a group of senators on June 13 released a framework for federal legislation they hope to introduce in Congress in the coming weeks that would overhaul federal motor vehicle regulations.

The second factor causing some states to pump the brakes is the sense that tech companies such as Uber and Google’s Waymo, and automakers such as Ford Motor, General Motors and others, are developing self-driving cars that will have sensors and mapping systems that won't rely on roadway upgrades.

"We are working very closely with a lot of cities, states and the federal government, but we need to make sure the technology is able to work in the current environment," GM President Dan Ammann said in February. "So we're not depending on an improvement in infrastructure."

Ken Washington, Ford's vice president of research and advanced engineering, says smart roadways would make self-driving cars even more capable, but "you can't count on that being there, which is why our technical approach is to build the capability completely on the vehicle."

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