Who will take leadership on infrastructure provision for autonomous vehicles?

As we approach the reality of widespread implementation of the autonomous vehicle, we are facing the most significant and fundamental change in transport since the 18th Century when the steam engine was invented.

With this reality also must come major changes in the infrastructure that will support these vehicles, and which also supports the current modes of transport our cities rely on so heavily.

What are the infrastructure implications of driverless vehicles? What will the passenger experience be? What will we see on our streets? How will new infrastructure merge with existing? Looking more broadly, what will the implications be for our cities and the people within them?

The autonomous vehicles industry is at a technology frontier and as such opens up a myriad of opportunities. But with these opportunities will come major challenges with regard to urban infrastructure. In order to plan for these changes we need to understand system effects and also transition trajectories.

After participating in the Future Vehicles 2016 conference (31st May – 1st June), I am convinced that delivering the mobility that will come with autonomous vehicles is totally within our grasp …  it’s happening…the equipment is ready, well, almost (Tesla driver dies in first fatal autonomous vehicle car crash in US).

What is not ready is the infrastructure, the legislation, the understanding around liabilities in potential accidents and the readiness of the community to accept that things could – and will - be radically different.

How are we going to climb that trajectory between the operations we’ve been used to for quite a long time and an autonomous vehicle future? How will we deal with the rather challenging steps along the way? How will our infrastructure deal with a mix of vehicles on the roads, some of which are autonomous and some of which are still driven by human beings with all their frailties? 

Google unveiled its driverless-car technology in 2010 and Tesla have theirs on the road, although not legally autonomous in most countries. Several automakers, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Nissan, Volkswagen and Volvo, have announced plans to introduce driverless cars or semiautonomous models. According to Google, their cars do not require any special instrumentation of infrastructure for the successful operation of their vehicles. Cameras in the vehicle leverage image recognition programs to help the car read traffic signs and other elements in the driving environment. A range of sensors and radars work together with the cameras to provide emergency braking, lane departure warning, cross traffic warning, pedestrian detection, collision avoidance, blind spot detection, rear collision, surround views and traffic signal recognition in addition to other functions.

While the cars themselves may not rely on special infrastructure to operate in isolation, the impact of their operations will inevitably require changes to infrastructure as we know it.

In order for autonomous vehicles to safely and efficiently coexist with human driven vehicles, instrumentation of road infrastructure will certainly play a major role.  Also, the way in which we design the ‘hard’ infrastructure’, such as our roads, highways, car parks, intersections, public transport systems and so on will change significantly.

It’s not dissimilar to thinking about the urban system in terms of how we promote building sustainability. When we think about existing building stock within its constraints, there are many ways we can make that stock operate more efficiently and sustainably.  It’s the same with infrastructure … in the case of autonomous vehicles, if the vehicles moving around in the system require less road space, can travel at minimum headways, need places to pull up and drop off but don’t need places to park for hours on end and so on, this will impact how we design for them and will create many opportunities for new thinking and reinvention of our urban systems.

So, when it comes to infrastructure, there are many implications for our cities and the people within them. I delve into detail here on future vision for roads, highways, parking spaces, public space, public transport, cycle ways, pedestrian paths and buildings.

While all these ideas are exciting in theory, how will we actually get there?  How should we be designing and engineering infrastructure now to accommodate for these inevitable changes? The simple answer is with flexibility, but we don’t know enough yet to be developing detailed urban space design guidelines. Austroads program is working on the electronic infrastructure aspects,  but not much has yet been achieved on theurban design / urban place aspects.  People are identifying opportunities, but given the situation is so dynamic its difficult to know how we can make design rules in that regard.

On the legislation and political front, although autonomous vehicles are still a few years away, some thought and planning has started for the infrastructure to support them, with some authorities reassessing investment priorities and regulations. For example, as an outcome of a Transport Futures conference, Transport for NSW have established a new centre for transport planning and the NSW Transport and Infrastructure Minister Andrew Constance recently argued that as the advent of the driverless car will completely transform transport planning, he does not want to see governments making multibillion-dollar transport infrastructure investments and then find out that with the advent of driverless cars they have made the wrong decisions.

So, although Autonomous vehicles (with full autonomous operation) are probably 20-30 years away (depending in part on acceptance by consumers, regulators and the wider industries which may be disrupted by the changes), there is already a lot of thought and tangible activity occurring in this space.

Before this becomes a day-to-day reality though, it’s going to be a challenging journey, with many hurdles to overcome, especially when it comes to supporting infrastructure. There will be more challenges to overcome in addressing the infrastructure implications of autonomous vehicles than there are in the vehicles themselves, because of the ongoing need to accommodate the old and the new technologies.  This will be a challenge that will be with us for a very long time.