If the car manufactures and tech companies are to be believed, autonomous vehicles will be with us very soon, but key questions remain regarding the necessary infrastructure
If the car manufactures and tech companies are to be believed, we will very soon be seeing connected and autonomous vehicles on our roads every day. While the in-car technology to enable this new reality is progressing apace, key questions remain regarding the necessary infrastructure for this. These questions are particularly pertinent to the city environment where space for new infrastructure is limited, congestion is greater, and there is more interaction between cars and other road users.
1. Will drivers of autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles be willing to share the road network?
While the technology might enable this, it’s possible that both sides may perceive the other as less safe. Those investing in autonomous technology may have heard the statistic that 90 per cent of road traffic incidents are due to human error and won’t want to travel alongside traditional vehicles. Vice versa, autonomous vehicles, until proved otherwise, may be perceived as less safe by those driving non-autonomous vehicles.
Vehicles operating at the highest levels of autonomy may need designated lanes or whole roads to separate them from low-level autonomy vehicles. While a separate lane could be possible on motorways and other trunk roads, this will be impossible in most existing towns and cities; even if there were the necessary funding, there simply isn’t space.
2. Can autonomous vehicles share the network?
Assuming drivers are willing to share, this would be challenging in many cities now. While a junction handling only autonomous vehicle traffic could allow the traffic to flow more efficiently, how will we cope when an autonomous vehicle meets a non-autonomous vehicle and the driver nods or uses a hand gesture to welcome the other to go ahead. We know the meaning of such subtle cues, but the autonomous vehicle will not. More junctions may need to be signalised to overcome such ambiguity.
Other road users pose even more of a challenge. If an autonomous vehicle is programmed to stop when a pedestrian steps into its path this could result in pedestrians taking advantage, no longer waiting or using designated crossings. Cyclists pose the same issues while travelling at higher speeds, often in the road rather than on a separate path.
On the other hand, if autonomous vehicles are travelling much closer together -- as we hope they will to deliver the desired reduction in congestion -- it may become more challenging for pedestrians and cyclists to find a gap to cross the road.
Again, separate lanes, roads, barriers and crossings may need to be developed in urban environments to accommodate these interactions.
3. How can we ensure consistency of road markings?
Current autonomous vehicles are reliant on road markings to navigate safely; their cameras need to be able to sense road marking to remain in lane or move from one to the other. In the United Kingdom, many of our road surfaces and markings have degraded over years of austerity budgets. As a supplier of Active and Intelligent Road Studs, here at Clearview Intelligence we understand the challenges local authorities are facing in trying to keep road markings in good condition. Without substantial changes in funding, we cannot see how the entire network can be maintained in a condition that is usable for autonomous vehicles.
Unless we address these infrastructure requirements soon, we risk having amazing new vehicles that we are only able to use some of time, on some of our network, and not in towns and cities where we most need the safety and congestion benefits autonomous vehicles offer. Yes, it will be great for all to benefit from autopilot technology on the motorway, but unless we can update our infrastructure to overcome the challenges facing autonomous vehicles in cities we’ll never reach mass adoption of high-level autonomous vehicles.
Making the necessary changes will be challenging; the ever advancing in-car technology means the requirements are evolving constantly, changing infrastructure is both time consuming and costly, and no one enjoys the delay caused by roadworks, but we need to commit and start addressing this future now if we are to truly benefit from the potential safety and congestion benefits offered by autonomous vehicles.
Michelle Caulfield-Harris is the digital marketing manager at Clearview Intelligence. She has a decade of digital marketing experience, built across a range of industries. Michelle is passionate about road safety and new technologies or applications that have the potential to reduce incidents on the road.
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