Self-driving is coming and it is going to change motoring considerably. In my last article I wrote about how autonomous vehicles could change our lives but this time we are going to take a closer look at how our roads specifically will differ from the road network we drive on today.
1. Road lanes could be narrower
Autonomous vehicles are going to be expert lane keepers through the use of multiple sensors including high accuracy GPS, HD cameras which read road markings and ultrasonic sensors to detect the presence of adjacent vehicles. Unlike humans, a computer does not get tired or distracted, nor does it have one too many down the local pub, so it operates at peak performance from the moment you turn the ignition to arriving at your destination.
The vehicle's enhanced driving ability means that lanes can be narrowed since there is little possibility of the vehicle swerving around within the lane. This is great news for traffic flows as it could allow four lanes in the space of three. Alternatively some road space could be repurposed to accommodate a bike lane or extra pavement to make pedestrians safer.
2. Smart infrastructure
Vehicle to infrastructure technology, or V2I, will enable connected vehicles to communicate with traffic signals and other road infrastructure. Doing so would negate the need for autonomous vehicles to read traffic lights and could advise a vehicle whether it needs to slow down or speed up when approaching a junction depending on the signal timings. It could also help manage traffic flows by adjusting the timings according to the the number of cars at each set of lights.
Other V2I applications include the transmission of warnings about the location of upcoming accidents on a motorway, for example. Similarly, emergency vehicles could broadcast their presence to upcoming vehicles to give them more advanced warnings so that they can cut through traffic more effectively.
3. Road maintenance will need to be better
To clear the current backlog of maintenance repairs to UK roads it would take 14 years at a cost of £11.8 billion - not including the extra defects that would occur during that time. Where road markings have faded, traffic signs are hard to read and potholes are just everywhere, autonomous vehicles might have difficulty navigating the road environment safely. Humans are pretty good at guessing where to drive when the route ahead is unclear due to poor maintenance but robots lack the contextual understanding of the road to make those deductions.
Clearly, local councils and highway authorities are going to have to step up their game to ensure that autonomous vehicles are safe on the road. Until then, either self-driving technology is going to have to improve or we will have to rethink the timescale over which we introduce autonomous vehicles.
4. Fewer cars means more space
Some people are predicting that in the future, it won't be necessary to own a car if you live in a city. Ultra low emission zones emission zones are already driving cars out of urban areas and more and more streets are becoming pedestrianised. A fleet of robot taxis could provide the future of personal transportation moving people quickly and cheaply around a trafficless city.
Imagining cities without cars currently sounds like an abstract concept but in many ways it makes sense. About 50% of the city footprint is currently devoted to the car; be it as roads, driveways, car parks or otherwise. Pair this with the fact that most cars spend 98% of their time sitting still and autonomous robot taxis driving 24/7 start to sound like a good idea. One car can service multiple people throughout the day, negating the need to drive your own car into the city. The removal of many roads and large parking garages means we can repurpose the space as parks, more retail space or residential areas.
5. UNDERGROUND ROADS?!
As part of a string of wacky transport revolutions, Elon Musk of Tesla fame has announced plans to build an underground network of tunnels that would allow autonomous vehicles to cruise beneath the city at 150mph, avoiding traffic and pesky cyclists along the way. The advanced lane keeping allows a precision of driving unattainable by humans that keeps the vehcile from hitting the tunnel walls. Cars would be lifted up and down from street to tunnel level by lifts spaced along the tunnel's length and could drastically cut journey times if they become widespread.
For the moment, this is just in its test phases and there are still many obstacles to overcome but it serves as an example of some of the wider possibilities that autonomous vehicles could enable in the future.