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The implications of road technology in the advent of autonomy

Over recent months, the pandemic has significantly impacted life around the globe. Our priorities have shifted and the pace of life has altered. Road use is focused on essential activity and essential journeys. However, in the future, they will be under strain again. The way individuals use the roads may change, with an increase in private vehicle usage, a constant steady flow of traffic throughout the day as commuters avoid the early morning rush, in many ways it’s still too early to tell.

There is, however, an expectation that the deployment of autonomous (or driverless) vehicles will be accelerated to support increasingly valuable use cases (i.e providing emergency supplies, moving key workers and enabling mobility for the most vulnerable people). But with all the excitement surrounding autonomous vehicles, it’s easy to forget the environment in which they are being deployed. In this month’s blog, Shane Canavan discusses the role of the road and how the technological advances in roadway infrastructure are integral to ensure the successful evolution of mobility.

The implications of road technology in the advent of autonomy

Whenever I have the good fortune of driving a nice vehicle, I often think of how my late grandfather would have reacted to getting behind the wheel of a modern car. As a bus driver in Dublin who retired in the early 1970s, he was never exposed to the joys of power steering or cruise control, or indeed the astonishing speed of innovation that has led us towards driverless vehicles. The age of autonomous vehicles is now here, and with that, the relationship of cars with their surroundings is a lot more intimate than the Austin A40 my grandfather used to drive. The relationship has moved well beyond just the contact patch between tyres and road surface, as there is now a whole host of communications and complex interdependencies.

The deployment of driverless vehicles is intriguing, with a whole range of new phenomenon to understand and overcome. Using sophisticated simulation techniques, each week we are developing a better understanding of how this is all going to align, and there are some wonderful opportunities to tease out. Prominent examples include operating platoons to eke out precious capacity, providing accessible transport solutions to those unable to drive or indeed improving the management of the pavement with more informative traffic data from these connected vehicles. As with many things in life, success lies in a holistic approach that encompasses all aspects of development. For autonomous vehicles, this includes not only the technological advancements of the vehicles themselves, but the complimentary physical environments in which they operate – pavements and enabling infrastructure systems such as lighting and signalling. The excitement of it all, however, seems to be focused on the vehicles, yet there is a flurry of activity surrounding road infrastructure that is also well worth shouting about.

The ability to readily lay durable surfaces is grossly underappreciated, and it is easy to presume that modern road surfacing has largely remained unchanged since its inception. However, the nuances of material science are truly elegant and have evolved considerably. It is not often we spare a moment to marvel at the ability of road surfaces to endure decades of dynamic loading and harsh climatic conditions. Yet challenges – and opportunities – still remain.

In recent years there have been numerous ambitious experiments on road pavements. A couple of examples include embedding solar panels to power lighting and signs as well as painting roads white to reduce the heat island effect. All very exciting, but they both have the same thing in common – they are impractical. Solar panels get covered in dirt, are at the wrong angle, and lead to high maintenance and replacement costs. White roads are blinding and thus dangerous. While these solutions themselves may not work now, it is encouraging to see the attempts and how they are spurring on innovation. Glow in the dark roads, pavements that clean storm water, pavements made of recycled material, smart pavements with sensors to monitor vehicles loads, road conditions, changing weather, as well as roads that can charge electric vehicles all exist. Watching experiments convert from trial to fully scalable implementation is going to be fascinating. It seems likely that roadway infrastructure is primed for a revolution – it may already be here – and along with this, the infrastructure ‘half’ of our transport system.

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