Maybe you haven’t encountered them yet, but self-driving vehicles are a reality and they are here to stay. Fully autonomous cars are quickly becoming a reality for everyday life, be it owning a self-driving car, retrofitting your existing car, or using a rental service that operates with autonomous vehicles. It is an exciting time for smart, autonomous, connected vehicles, and nobody is really sure what the impacts are going to be yet, though already we see state and federal departments of transportation developing the backend infrastructure to support this future. Here are five ways I think driverless cars will affect civil engineering.
1. Roadway Safety The main cause for accidents on our roadway networks today is human error. Autonomous vehicles solve this major problem by removing the human element all together, meaning accident rates can be expected to be almost non-existent. By perceiving threats more quickly than a human, computers will be able to detect problems and make corrections before an accident can occur. No longer will sleepy, drunk, or distracted drivers cause accidents or run you off the roads, and no longer will drivers be going 35 mph down the freeway in the left lane or 100 mph in the right lane. And while humans sometimes struggle in limited visibility or bad weather conditions, vehicles will navigate these obstacles with ease. Roadway safety will change as we know it, making for a safer and more efficient system.
2. Traffic One of the major sources of traffic build-up is roadway accidents. Once accidents become more rare with autonomous vehicles, so will the resulting traffic congestion. Vehicles that are automated and communicating to one another will be able to drive closer, more efficiently, and safer than ever before. Even though the flow of traffic will improve due to these advances, one challenge will be the possibility of increased vehicles on the roads. When you remove the need for a driver, you can have vehicles driving to pick up their owners / renters, delivering goods, or circling around while they wait for the owner to finish what they are doing. It appears that the trend will be towards more vehicles on the roadways, but it is unclear whether the additional capacity from more efficient roadways will offset the additional volume.
3. Traffic Signals With a fully autonomous system, traffic signals will become a relic of the past. Rather than sitting a red light, we will have a system much like an air traffic controller, in which a master computer will communicate with the vehicles in the area to speed them up or slow them down so they can pass through the intersection without stopping. It might be a little harrowing at first but, let’s face it, you won’t need to pay attention to the road anyway so your probably won’t even notice. By removing traffic signals, the throughput of an intersection would theoretically increase, in addition to the value added through less braking / stopping consuming gas, time, and wearing on the vehicles themselves.
4. Site Design The design of developments, particularly commercial ones, will have to adapt to the use of autonomous vehicles. We are very likely going see a trend towards less on-site parking and an increase in curbside pickup locations where vehicles can exit the flow of traffic and gather their occupants. Since they don’t need drivers, vehicles can be elsewhere, like renting out your car to pick up other people or having your car pick up your groceries or just circle around the block a few times. The needs for parking or at least on-site parking are going to decrease as autonomous vehicles increase.
5. Roadway Design Roadways are designed to accommodate both the vehicles traveling on it and the humans behind the wheel. Without humans behind the wheel, roads as we know them can change quite a bit. The general practice will remain the same, but there will be a lot more flexibility in what an engineer can do. For example if you know trucks will only be in a certain lane, you can make the other lanes narrower to fit more lanes in your cross-section. If speeds are controlled automatically, you can design your roadways to geographic constraints instead of what the roadway speed dictates in the area. Turn lanes, driveways, and intersections can become more compact, or maybe some new design that we can’t even imagine now will become the standard.
This is just scratching the surface of what the future may bring; smart connected autonomous vehicles are definitely coming, with many manufacturers shooting for early 2020s for production vehicles. Autonomous vehicles will have a far reaching impact across infrastructure, policy, and design. Right now there are a lot of unknowns about what is going to happen after wide spread adoption, but we do know we have a lot of work ahead of us.
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