Budget negotiations in Congress later this year could determine whether North Carolina and eight other states begin federally-funded on-road testing of self-driving cars.
President Donald Trump and his administration are putting pressure on Congress to cut some federal spending, including a proposed $2.4 billion decrease in funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Federal DOT officials have already approved North Carolina’s Interstate 540 Triangle Expressway, a toll road, as a future testing site for automated automobiles – passenger cars and trucks that navigate traffic without a traditional driver. The N.C. Turnpike Authority requested the designation and was picked in January as one of 10 sites nationwide to participate in the pilot program.
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Now, supporters of the program say Congress must allocate money for the projects to move forward.
North Carolina’s two Republican U.S. senators want federal transportation money for the research included in this year’s appropriations bill. U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis sent a letter to top Senate appropriators this month saying the DOT-funded testing and research will support safe development of connected and automated vehicles.
The letter was signed by three Republican senators and six Democrats but doesn’t request a specific amount of funding. Tillis is leading the bipartisan effort along with Michigan Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.
Tillis’ office said the amount of money that could go to North Carolina is undetermined but he wants to see enough federal resources provided to support technological innovation on the U.S. DOT pilot sites.
“Funding levels are something that appropriators will have to balance in a difficult budget cycle,” he told McClatchy in a prepared statement Wednesday.
State transportation officials said the future Triangle Expressway self-driving car testing depends on federal funding. The N.C. Turnpike Authority anticipates signing an agreement with the federal transportation agency, said spokesperson Carly Olexik.
Other federally-approved testing grounds include two in California as well as sites in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida. Federal DOT officials announced approval of the 10 testing sites on the final day of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Last month, the Charlotte Observer reported Charlotte city officials are hoping to partner with auto giant General Motors to test self-driving cars locally.