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5 ways driverless cars will change our roads and highways

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Our entire transportation infrastructure needs to move away from a design focus on human drivers

Self-driving vehicles are already hitting public roads in limited tests around the world, but we’ve got a long way to go before the technology enters the mainstream. There’s more to making driverless cars a reality than the cars themselves.

Our laws, safety regulations, and entire driving infrastructure were designed for vehicles with humans at the wheel. While companies like Google, Uber, and Ford are designing next-generation autonomous vehicles, the way we integrate these technologies at street level needs to be carefully considered.

A new report from transit safety consultancy Transportation Resource Associates dives into a number of key aspects of the transit ecosystem that will need to evolve alongside self-driving technologies.

New pavement, paint, and signage

Tests of driverless cars have shown that some vehicles fail to recognize road surfaces, painted lines, and signs in foggy and ultra-rainy conditions. Yes, there can certainly be improvements to the cars’ sensors and interpretation systems, but an easier fix might be customizing road materials to make streets more visible in all kinds of conditions. Roadways can also vary widely in terms of materials and signage. As driverless cars increase in popularity, a new set of road standards will emerge to ensure that street materials and markings are optimized for the new vehicles.

Responsive speed limits

Existing speed limits are set to ensure safety under human drivers. But with a platoon of connected, driverless cars, the vehicles will be able to respond instantly to road information and the movements of other cars. If all of the cars on a highway are able to self-organize into an optimal traffic flow taking road conditions into account, there’s no reason that speeds won’t increase.

Advanced vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications

How a car gets information about its surroundings will prove crucial to its success on the street. Everything from weather alerts to accident warnings, traffic information, and even stop light signals will need to be received and disseminated to vehicles in real time. And the cars will need to talk back, generating more weather and traffic data to feed into an area’s dynamic response system. This increase in communications might mean beefing up our cell networks and devices for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) so that cameras and sensors along a roadway can communicate consistently with cars.

Tighter street design

Other aspects of roadway design will become outdated or even obsolete with the advent of driverless cars. Everything from the width of traffic lanes to the length of off-ramps and placement of a curbs was created with human drivers in mind. Self-driving vehicles are far more capable of being precise in their controls, and thereby better able to navigate more tightly designed routes. It’s unlikely that retrofitting existing roads wholesale would be practical, but new roads could potentially be built smaller and more efficiently given the capabilities of driverless cars.

Trained human drivers

As more driverless cars hit the road, human drivers will need to change some of their habits to accommodate the new vehicles. Researchers have barely dipped a toe into testing how human drivers react to autonomous cars, and vice versa, but it’s likely that new restrictions will arise to help control for a mix of vehicles. It’s likely that driverless cars will get dedicated lanes or driverless-only neighborhoods. Some states may even take the opposite approach and create areas where only human drivers are allowed to control a car.

Source: Transportation Resource Associates