The Near Future Of Mobility

autonomous car, new trends, transportation

Infrastructure Today, Autonomous Vehicles Tomorrow

As our country prepares for infrastructure upgrades, it’s time to imagine how we will travel five, ten, or fifteen years from now. We need to think infrastructure today, autonomous vehicles tomorrow. In the short term it’s inevitable that public roads will need to accommodate human driven vehicles alongside autonomous, self-driving ones. It is already taking place on a limited scale today with self-driving pilot programs. But imagine a future where there is a substantial mix of old and new vehicles jockeying for lanes.  If you’ve driven behind a horse and buggy, say in Central Park or in Amish country, you have experienced the contention of mixed modes.

Transition with Infrastructure Today & AV Tomorrow

Infrastructure can make that transition less bumpy, and help migrate towards autonomous vehicles tomorrow. The experience comes from the shipping industry. Before the invention of the container ship, stevedores used pallets. They could not imagine a different way of packing a boat.  Container shipping required a large, extensive investment in infrastructure but it made shipping faster, cheaper, and more efficient. Only when the infrastructure changed did the full potential of the new logistics get unleased.

This is a useful analogy since safe, ubiquitous self-driving vehicles are likely to slash the costs of moving freight; a former GM exec says by at least one-half. The Bloomberg article adds that the microeconomic benefits are hard to ignore. An equally potent case can be made for public health- autonomous vehicles will greatly reduce the 38,000 + lives lost annually in vehicle accidents, while improving participation rates in two healthy travel modes, bicycling and walking.

InfraStructure- Getting from Here to There

So, how do we come up with better ways to integrate old and new technologies? For today, during this transitional period, how do we plan for roads where motor cars and self-driven ones (autonomous) operate side by side?

There are five steps, we call them the five “S” that can help reduce the pain points, and at the same time, make our current roads and vehicle occupants safer. The ‘5s’ will improve driving conditions now, but also make it safer to test and develop autonomous vehicles for the future. This is vital since one of the first applications of self-driving vehicles is likely to be on inter-states  with large, fast-moving freight vehicles. 

Five S: Speed Not Today

Speed: Autonomous vehicles are programmed to be law abiding when it comes to speed (velocity), but human driven vehicles are not.  Enforcing the posted speed limits, either through regulation, or by building in more electronics in conventional cars, is arguably the most important step. Today, vehicle dashboards can flash the posted speed limit. Electronics could slow the conventional car to the designated speed, or, more simply, alert the human driver if they exceed the posted rate.

This may require a ‘rethink’ of posted speed limits. According to Automotive Fleet, most drivers believe that there are places and instances when it’s OK to exceed the posted limit. There is a perception that speed limits are set to be lower than actual safe travel speeds. That may not be realistic, as speeding remains one of the riskiest driving behaviors. In 2019, speeding was the cause of more than a quarter of all traffic fatalities. 

Getting human drivers compatible with autonomous vehicles, and keeping everyone safe, requires changing our perception of how fast a vehicle should travel.  Race cars may be the notable exceptions, but posted speed limits need to reflect the underlying geometry and visibility of the road.  The future might hold variable speed limits- levels that change depending upon the time of the day, weather conditions, and the level of traffic congestion. 

Five S: Sobriety and A Fix

Sobriety: Driving under the influence (including drugs) is responsible for nearly 47 percent of accidents. Autonomous cars do not drink and drive. Today, further enforcement and strict penalties for DUI will make human drivers more aware of the benefits of an autonomous vehicle.  Significantly, there is proposed legislation in 2021 which would require drunk driving prevention technology as standard equipment on all new vehicles.  A simpler, social approach would require recidivists to be subject to public shaming, with a ‘Scarlet letter” like bumper sticker affixed to the vehicle they drive.  Rideshare has flourished on college campuses and among young people going to bars and restaurants. Autonomous cars, which would be even more convenient, are likely to be heralded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other advocacy groups. 

5 S: Striping for Today and Tomorrow

Striping: Autonomous cars use markings on the roadbed to gauge their position and their relationship to other objects. For software to make this determination, special luminescent paint needs to be used. In California, Caltrans has started to replace older striping with a glass-bead material more visible to vehicle software. 

Striping the roadbed today brings advantages for conventional cars-  it can help drivers with reduced vision see more. It can also improve conditions for those traveling in bad weather, when there is glare, or after dark. Restriping roads occurs regularly and the newer materials help human drivers today stay within their lanes.

5 S: Sensors for Today and Tomorrow

Sensors: For the past few years, BMW’s, Tesla’s, Cadillacs and other upscale vehicles have been equipped with cruise control that can recognize and respond to traffic lights. These vehicles have sensors and software that ‘interacts’ with the traffic signal. With full autonomy, traffic signals could, in principal, become obsolete, but certainly not while there are still human drivers.  

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)_ has observed that today, we are in a period of “partially automated safety features.” Between 2016 and through 2025, they anticipate a growth in features like the traffic signal/adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, traffic jam assist, and self-park. These innovations involve two-way interaction between a vehicle and its surroundings. 

Almost all road markers we use today were installed at an earlier time and not designed for this type of two-way interaction. Upgrading signage with two-way sensors will make it easier for public works departments to do asset management and monitoring. It could also improve the accuracy of the GPS that human drivers depend on. 

5 S: Spatial Segregation helps Autonomous Vehicles

Spatial Segregation: The idea of “spatial segregation”, i.e., dedicated driverless spaces for autonomous vehicles, has been proposed in a 2018 article by business school professors. They viewed the transitional period, between self-driving cars and conventional ones, to be unsafe.  While that is true, the idea of earmarking lanes for special purposes is not new. California has had nearly forty years of experience in identifying and fencing off designated lanes as social and political needs changed. Vehicle lanes once designated for carpools were repurposed to accommodate clean-fuel electric vehicles, and more recently, for vehicles with electronic tolling. 

Spatial segregation will only be as successful, however, as the communications infrastructure for the vehicle. Like the railroads, which often have coaxial cable alongside the tracks, autonomous vehicles in the segregated lane will need high-speed coaxial cable or fiber for communications with their surroundings, and other vehicles. 

Summing Up- Looking Forward

The five “S” are vital upgrades that can make the transition from conventional cars to autonomous ones safer and less contentious. Importantly, none of them handicap conventional drivers in any way, or make their road trips less satisfactory. Meanwhile, the five improvements, individually and collectively, help pave the way so that autonomous vehicles can be tested in real, working conditions. It is often hard to solve chicken and egg problems, but in this case, we do so by improving the hatchery.