This year, top automakers began the rollout of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) technologies. Accordingly, the federal government has begun prioritizing this area of technology innovation through competitive grants and opportunities to collaborate with the National Laboratories. The hypothesis is that CAVs are likely to have tremendous energy and regulatory implications – potentially both good and bad – and thus the desire to steer technology development in the direction of increased energy efficiency and road safety. Indeed, both the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Transportation (DOT) have recently issued competitive solicitations that promote research, development, and demonstration efforts that push the state-of-the-art forward. Despite the budget battles raging between the White House and Capitol Hill, the consensus among lawmakers is that CAV technology should remain a priority even with the looming threat of programmatic cuts. Despite some opportunities having recently passed, the funding opportunities set forth below are still underway, were confirmed in the 2017 Omnibus package, and are expected to be released in the coming weeks and months.
Department of Energy
Through its Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO), the DOE has allocated millions of dollars in 2017 to its Transportation as a System (TAS) Initiative. TAS seeks to explore opportunities for energy efficiency at the system-level, above its traditional vehicle-level focus. Earlier this year, VTO created the Energy Efficient Mobility Systems (EEMS) subprogram and then released its Fiscal Year 2017 Vehicle Technologies Program Wide Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), which included the agencies first formal foray into the CAV technology area. Early indications are that EEMS topic area received an enthusiastic response from industry and awards will probably be announced by the end of the year. The Fiscal Year 2018 Vehicles Technologies FOA, slated for release in January or February of 2018, will likely also include an EEMS topic area.
Until then, companies pioneering CAV innovations may be able to directly collaborate with the National Laboratories. The following Labs have already been active in CAV technology research and development:
- Argonne National Laboratory (focus: light-duty vehicles)
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory (focus: medium- to heavy-duty vehicles)
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (focus: medium- to heavy-duty vehicles)
- Idaho national Laboratory (focus: vehicle testing)
- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (focus: vehicle sensors)
The National Labs are typically very receptive to direct outreach. If mutual interest in a specific research topic is established, the company can enter into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the Lab. CRADAs generally allow for the federal government to share a portion of the costs and to keep research findings confidential for up to five years. It is also possible for companies to directly pay Labs for use of their equipment and facilities in lieu of having to procure these themselves. One of the benefits of this approach is that intellectual property is generally held permanently with the company when they fund the research activities.
Department of Transportation
While the DOE's CAV efforts are principally focused energy efficiency, the DOT's CAV efforts are more focused on road safety albeit with an eye towards sustainability. Furthermore, the DOT has subprograms supporting CAV innovations from early to advanced stages in technology development, reflecting the DOT's having started initiatives in this space earlier than the DOE.
- FAST Act's Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD) expects to issue a solicitation this summer making up to $10 million available per project for advanced CAV technologies that are near-term deployable with “boots on the ground” in 3 years. This program requires partnering with a public entity as the lead applicant to demonstrate public-sector buy-in; however, that should not be surprising given the very broad implications that CAVs may have. Interested companies should begin reaching out to cities and other municipalities now to establish strategic partnerships in advance of the solicitation going live.
- The Alternative Fuels, Electronics, and Emerging Technologies Program aims to promote research and testing in support of the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles. To this end, the DOT recently announced the designation of 10 official autonomous vehicle proving grounds across the U.S. to encourage testing and information sharing.
- The Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program aims to invest in pilot deployments of safe and climate smart autonomous vehicles. The latest round of awards was announced in September 2016, where the DOT awards three cooperative agreements collectively worth $45 million to initiate Phase 1 of the program. Specifically, the three awardees – New York Department of Transportation, Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, and Wyoming Department of Transportation – are embarking on a 20-month phase of activity to design, building, and test the nation's most complex and extensive deployment of integrated wireless in-vehicle, mobile device, and roadside technologies. While this opportunity may not come around again for a couple of years, it still may be possible to reach out to these entities and join the collaborative effort.
There is every indication that momentum for CAV funding opportunities with the federal government through these programs and others such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy (ARPA-E) are only going to increase, despite uncertainty on Capitol Hill. First, these programs are bound by their legislatively enacted missions and functions. As such, the degree to which any new Administration that opposes their activities can curb them is legally limited. Second, we continue to see a steady flow of funding opportunities that successfully move through the solicitation, downselec, and award phases. Current clients continue to move attractive project concepts forward and receive agency buy-in. Third, while Republicans may criticize some of the energy related activities that agencies like the DOE funds, early-stage research and development generally receive broad bipartisan support, even among conservative Republicans.