There are numerous real-world challenges to the successful deployment of autonomous vehicles that onboard technology alone hasn’t been able to address. While it’s often assumed the answer is a combination of new laws or investment in cutting-edge innovation to expedite their arrival, the reality is far less exciting. The most immediate and foundational step a city or road authority can take to prepare for autonomous vehicles is to ensure that roads are in good condition and road signage can communicate clearly with vehicles.
Poor road conditions
The most basic challenge facing autonomous vehicles is deteriorating road infrastructure. Much in the same way a pothole or worn lane markings can be dangerous or confusing for a human driver, they pose similar problems to an AV trying to navigate the same roadway. These road hazards, if not addressed in a timely fashion, can limit where AVs can effectively operate, as well as their ability to localize correctly on the roadway. However, for many cities, regional authorities and government officials, prioritizing money for road repairs can be a big logistical and political challenge. One approach is to tie the appetite for AV action to the need for infrastructure funding. Positioning road repair on key networks where AVs will operate, as an incentive to foster innovation, can refocus attention on this basic logistical need and improve road conditions and safety for human drivers in the process.
Cities and road authorities should think about how they communicate concepts such as traffic rules and restrictions. For more than a century, terrestrial-based signs and pavement markings have been used to communicate rules to human drivers. Despite the occasional confusing intersection, missing or obscured sign, or worn lane marking, this system has, on the whole, worked quite well. Current HD mapping solutions for highly automated vehicles are very good at establishing the location of an object to centimeter-level precision; however, it’s much more challenging to understand the context of that traffic sign and the rule(s) it’s communicating.
Prototype AVs can be an effective tool for notifying civic administrators of potholes or signage issues as their technology can be used to report the road conditions they encounter back to transport authorities in real time. As a result, maintenance can be carried out in a timely fashion, improving safety and performance for all road users.
The solution to the mapping problem is to develop a new road rules system that’s designed specifically for AVs. Rather than using signage intended for human drivers, this means digitizing the highway code and communicating data to vehicles wirelessly. Not only does this help to solve the issue of poor road infrastructure conditions, it also enables road authorities to automatically update rules as and when required. This could involve adjusting speed limits if road works are taking place, or even implementing dynamic rules that adjust to optimize traffic flow based on real-world conditions. Furthermore, AVs are set to play a key role in connecting the smart cities of the future, plugging into broader intermodal transportation networks. As a result, it’s vital that connectivity with broader civic architecture is integrated at the design and trial stages of its development. Thus, digitizing road rules for AVs is an essential first step.
by Avery Ash, autonomous vehicle lead at Inrix