Dwight Farmer, retired Executive Director of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization, former VRPI President and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Transportation Research Institute of Old Dominion University, discussed the rapidly emerging technology of Autonomous Vehicles (AV) at the July 21, 2016 Annual Meeting of the Board of Directors and Fellows of VRPI.

Farmer's talk, accompanied by a powerpoint presentation, is the result of his research for a class he teaches at Old Dominion University.

In his presentation, Farmer reviewed the "who, what and how much" of the technological developments making AVs possible, and discussed  how AV is "changing the rules" of transportation. He also explored the implications for urban transportation systems, public transportation and freight.

Farmer's presentation was followed by a lively Q&A from the audience. So many breathtaking technological advances are being so quickly developed and commercialized, and the implications are so revolutionary, that several attendees regarded the talk as a revelation. 

Farmer subsequently authored an article titled, "Autonomous Vehicles:The Implications on Urban Transportation and Traffic Flow Theory, published in the November, 2016 edition of ite journal, the peer-reviewed journal of the The Institute of Transportation Engineers. Read Dwight's article by clicking here or on the image below and scrolling to pages 34-37.

Commentary by Dick Beadles on the implications of AV technology for the future of rail transportation can be found below.  

On the Implications of AV Implementation and Deployment on  U.S. Transportation, and Impact upon Demand for Rail Freight and Passenger Services

Memo from Dick Beadles

      I will not attempt to do anything more in this memo than to list some of the points that struck me as among the more important in Dwight Farmer's presentation on Autonomous Vehicles (“AV”) and their probable impact upon the automobile industry, highways, urban transit, urban planning, and modal shifts, e.g. will everybody simply opt for worry-free highway travel with AV rather than take a plane, bus or train?  The question extends far beyond personal transportation, to cargo transport as well, and perhaps to other unanticipated impacts.


  • The technology is, for the most part, available right now, and is relatively inexpensive.  That is not to say that it is yet perfect, but progress in refinement and deployment is expected to be quite rapid, e.g. over the next two to five years.  In fact, many newer vehicles on the road today already offer elements of what is considered the future range of AV capabilities.

  • Improved highway safety is considered to be the greatest benefit and the most compelling justification for AV.   With 35,000 highway deaths in the U.S. (2015) and an estimated one million highway-related deaths in the world each year, the need to reduce such carnage speaks for itself.  Some AV proponents think that full deployment of AV on all highway vehicles in the U.S. might cut highway deaths by up to 90%.   Dwight points out that this would have a profound impact upon the industry that makes its living on death and personal injury claims, e.g. attorneys and insurance underwriters and their agents.  Buffett has already taken note (GEICO).


  • Human driver reaction time, e.g. when to slam on the breaks, ranges around 1.5 seconds.  AV capability is said to be as low as one-tenth of a second.  This would, at least in theory, permit autos and trucks to close the gap between moving vehicles, thus producing more highway capacity without need for constructing additional lanes.  Dwight cautions that this is not likely to be as great a windfall as it sounds because the history of highway construction is such that new capacity tends to be consumed, fairly quickly, by the tendency to drive more if such discretionary trips (induced demand?) can be made without fear of congestion.


  • The automobile industry is said to be very concerned about possible reduction in sale of vehicles to individual owners when, and if, everybody could have virtually-instant access to one or more of the current crop of personal auto transportation providers (Uber, Lyft, et. al), which, as presently envisioned, might be summoned via I-Phone and immediately send a driverless vehicle to one’s door step and deliver the passenger or passengers to their destination, worry-free, with no parking, maintenance, taxes, insurance nor rapid depreciation to consider.  Nevertheless, all of the major auto manufacturers are spending huge amounts of money on AV development, and will soon be spending billions on marketing.  Dwight reminded us that the U.S. auto industry already spends more than $3 Billion each year in advertising to “get inside our heads, and convince us that we need what they are selling”.


  • Already critics of urban transit systems, such as the Washington Metro, are suggesting that they will become obsolete, that AV transportation systems (might Metro simply replace trains and buses with huge fleets of AVs?) will supersede and replace them.  While prudently reluctant to make predictions of this sort, Dwight speculates that public transit systems will still exist in some form, and that the current 2% of personal trips made on public transit will probably continue to occur on such systems, or upon evolutionary forms of them.

  • For that matter – and this is Dick Beadles’ question --- why go through the airport hassle to travel to New York if --- and this is certainly a big IF – one could travel from home to Times Square in an owner-operator- provided AV in complete comfort and privacy, with no congestion, and possibly at faster overall trip time?   The same question applies for passenger rail and Amtrak?


  • So where does this leave the U.S. freight railroad industry.  Recently, I had occasion to observe the passage through Richmond of a 12,000 linear-foot-long CSX Intermodal train (truck trailers, containers on railroad flat cars, plus a large number of empty flat cars).  In the parlance of railroading, this is supposed to be a “hot” train, i.e., faster than most of the others. This monster was moving from Jacksonville, FL to North Bergan, N. J., with a set-off in Baltimore of some of the cars.  The train had apparently taken nearly 23-hours to make the 680-mile trip to Richmond from Jacksonville, an average of about 30 mph (almost 10-hours from the last crew change in Florence, S.C., a distance of about 297 miles).  Today, a truck on I-95 can make the trip from Jacksonville to Richmond in about 10 hours.  Some highway-competitive cargo can tolerate slow movement, but most cannot.  The money (what the shippers will pay) is in the premium service provided by the truckers.  Something has got to change in U.S. railroading if the current owners and operators of rail freight expect to remain relevant in the domestic cargo marketplace.  With the potential for widespread AV application in trucking, the need to change, to develop a new business plan, and services, would appear to be imperative.


  • Dwight is quick to point out that what is technically achievable may never be fully implemented if, as a matter of public policy, the nation does not want such full implementation. There will be many potential beneficiaries of AV, and perhaps almost as many private commercial interests that are negatively impacted.  How this will shake out over the next few years is unknowable.  However, an article in the July 23 WSJ is headlined:  “U.S. Won’t Impede Self-Driving Cars”.  The head of the National Transportation Safety Administration is quoted as saying, in effect, that the potential safety benefits are simply too compelling to be ignored.

Like it or not, big changes in transportation are afoot.  Railroad companies, and their investors, patrons and advocates:  Take note!

Richard L. Beadles


About Dwight Farmer, PE


Mr. Farmer was formerly the Executive Director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) and the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRTPO).  He was appointed by the Board of Directors on May 21, 2008 and remained in that position until his retirement on July 1, 2014.  

Mr. Farmer is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Transportation Research Institute of Old Dominion University, a position he has held for several decades. His current focus involves research on Autonomous Vehicle technologies and their future implications on urban transportation.

Mr. Farmer serves as a member of the ODU Modeling, Simulation and Visualization Engineering Department Industry Advisory Board.  In addition he is past President of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute and continues to serve as a board member.

Mr. Farmer is also a Senior Advisor to the consulting firm RK&K (Rummel, Klepper & Kahl, LLP), specializing in Transportation Engineering.

Mr. Farmer received a B.S. Degree with Distinction in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Virginia Tech and an M.S. Degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.  Mr. Farmer is a licensed Professional Engineer. 

Mr. Farmer has served as a member and chairman of numerous Statewide Advisory Committees to the Virginia General Assembly, Virginia Department of Transportation and the office of the State Secretary of Transportation during the past four decades.  He has also served on the boards of the Virginia Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, Senior Services of Southeast Virginia, Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, Hampton Roads Partnership and the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.