Recent history is speckled with companies and sectors positively disrupted by technological advances – our roads are surely next. People spend an average of 235 hours driving each year through a landscape that has largely remained unchanged since the days of Henry Ford.
The change that will come is something the UK Government is already thinking about, publishing its first report and action plan for driverless vehicles earlier this year. The report followed announcements from the likes of Google, Audi, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover – all of whom are making bold predictions about when driverless technology will move from concept to reality.
Despite the enthusiasm of an industry estimated to be worth £900bn by 2025, in the medium term it’s still premature for drivers to start planning suitable pastimes to while away the hours spent speeding down the motorway with the vehicle in total control.
While consumer uptake can be capricious, our infrastructure sector is well placed to start anticipating how these technologies will shape our road network. So what are the short term priorities, and the longer term implications?
Autonomous vehicle technologies have been in use, in one form or another, since the mid-1980s. Emergency braking systems, self-parking technologies, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems are now mature technologies. But, in Britain at least, we have yet to let the computers take over the business of driving altogether.
The first realistic situation for driverless technology is on our motorways, with their consistent geometric standards and absence of pedestrians and cyclists, which make it a more predictable environment for a computer to understand. Remembering that autonomy is about the relationship between the vehicle and the road shows the significant part the highway industry has to play in the driverless technology revolution:
To date Highways England, the organisation responsible for England’s motorways and trunk roads, has tackled congestion with ‘smart’ motorways. These provide drivers with better journey information, use variable speed limits and lane controls to maximise capacity. This technology is expensive, requiring continuous monitoring by control centre staff and creates physical ‘clutter’ through a proliferation of gantries and signs. It also requires enforcement, and demands increased driver concentration to respond to changing conditions along the route.
Autonomous technology can ‘internalise’ control of the vehicle in response to traffic conditions, regulating speed and managing routing to move the vehicle through congested sections of the network in the most efficient way, without the need for external signage. With most new vehicles already equipped with GPS navigation systems, linking this technology with the vehicle’s other control systems is within easy reach.
It might sound counter-intuitive that relinquishing control can make your journey safer, but 95% of road accidents are caused by human error. Combining the speed control systems with those for maintaining distance between vehicles (using adaptive cruise control) and emergency braking to deal with unexpected obstructions has the potential to provide safe, driverless travel on our major roads.
Carrying out roadworks and maintenance on major roads comes with an increased risk. The situation requires more precise control of speed and lane position than normal to protect the workforce and reduce disruption. Long road tunnels – and a number are planned in the UK – can be disorienting for drivers and present certain psychological challenges which have safety implications. Both are situations that can be radically improved with technology
In the UK there are over 600 specially designated areas (called AQMAs) which don’t meet the national air quality objectives – many of which relate to road emissions. There is no doubt that driverless technologies present a significant opportunity to reduce impacts of air and noise pollution on local communities and other road users.
Areas subject to high levels of air pollution or particular noise sensitivity can be more effectively managed if speed is internally controlled, with gradual acceleration and deceleration, to avoid excessive acceleration or braking.
To achieve these areas of improvement the focus of development, in the short-term at least, should be on what society needs, rather than simply on what is possible. A focus on steady-state ‘cruising’ situations rather than the more complex. We need to challenge and work with manufacturers to innovate in ways that solve the problems that better roads and more effective highway technologies cannot totally address.
Taking a leap forward in time, what possible benefits could autonomous vehicles offer us in Britain?
Driverless vehicles that can operate in conditions ranging from open motorways to congested city streets and narrow country lanes may remain a little ambitious for now, but when it does happen the results could be dramatic.
We will see a reducing amount of physical signage, gantries and other roadside clutter across the road network reducing maintenance costs and visual impact.
More effective use of motorway space through the ‘platooning’ of vehicles which can travel faster and closer together, with less environmental impact. Vehicles that will drop-off and collect their drivers and passengers before heading out of town to park neatly in narrow parking bays designed to ‘stack’ vehicles in the most efficient way, potentially – according to work done by Prof Donald Shoup - freeing up over 5bn square metres of road real-estate in the USA alone.
Road travel will become safer and journey times will become more predictable. Buses will run on schedule and trucks will always deliver ‘just-in-time’. Speed limits will always be observed with each road having the flexibility to dynamically tailor its speed limits to conditions and volume of traffic.
Human error will be more-or-less eliminated on driverless sections of the road. Travel will be less stressful and the occupants of vehicles will be free to make better use of their time increasing productivity. Taking the scenic route will become a programming option and being stuck in traffic will no longer be a good excuse.
Over the next decade I am optimistic that we will find solutions that combine the best vehicle and road technologies to meet the needs of motorists whilst capturing the opportunities to provide a safer, more efficient, less polluting road network as a whole. But in the longer term, as with many new technologies, it’s incredibly difficult to predict the precise flow their course will take.
Travelling by road will certainly become more efficient and safer: but it might just get to be a bit more boring. With Britain’s love of the motor car, the time it will take for the public to adopt such a radical change in technology could well be the least predictable factor in the whole driverless technology debate.
Author - Mace