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Autonomous vehicles: How can we get ready?

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Autonomous vehicles are expected on the market by 2020.

With huge changes to road infrastructure needed to accommodate autonomous vehicles, how can governments optimise road assets and prepare cities?

In this Q&A with Aurecon Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) expert Blair Monk, we discuss how the introduction of autonomous vehicles will impact road users, road authorities and a range of industries.

What is driving the development of autonomous vehicles and how will this change the industry?

Technology continues to grow at a rapid rate, with computer power approximately doubling every two years. It’s only just now that technology is truly starting to break its way into the motor industry, with companies like Google, IBM, Mercedes, Volvo and Tesla building autonomous vehicles.

The way that transport is sold and used around the world is set to change dramatically. Far fewer cars will be purchased but they will be smarter. They will be able to drive themselves and be used by different people for day to day commutes.

Major upgrades to road infrastructure will be required to maximise the benefits of autonomous vehicles. How can we get more value out of road infrastructure and transport networks?

Where are we at now?

Autonomous vehicles are currently being used in hospitals for staff and patient movements, as well as in airports, university campuses, parks and other commuter environments. 

Companies are doing a lot of research into building autonomous vehicles for the wider community. Google and Apple have invested a great deal in taking on the motor vehicle producers to change the way we use vehicles. Tesla is also investing heavily in driverless technology that reduces the stress of the daily commute and long distance travel. An autonomous Tesla could be on the market as early as 2018, subject to regulatory approval.

How successful have autonomous vehicle trials been?

Many of the current car manufacturers are trialling connected technologies between vehicles and from roadside to vehicles. At UMTRI (University of Michigan Transport Research Institute), just outside Detroit, USA, a test town has been set up to push the connectivity between vehicles to its limits in real world situations. Over 2 700 vehicles have been used in the trails so far with spectacular results. These vehicles broadcast 10 times a second where they are, their speed, trajectory, and breaking so that other vehicles around them know what they are doing or about to do. The US government is proposing 2019 as the year for this technology to be mandatory on all new cars sold in the country.

Testing an autonomous vehicle in Detroit 

Australia’s first on-road autonomous vehicle demonstration took place on Adelaide’s Southern Expressway as part of an International Driverless Cars Conference held on 5-6 November 2015. The demonstration was a success, with the driverless Volvo displaying lane keeping, adaptive cruise control and active queue assist.

What does this mean for road users?

Autonomous vehicles will revolutionise the way transport networks are designed and built in the future. The old adage of building roads for capacity is going to disappear. We won’t be building as much as we used to but we’ll be looking at ways to optimise road networks to maximise throughput and increase safety.

Roads will need to be smarter. Road authorities can prepare for the ‘big data’ requirements of autonomous and electric vehicles by working with computer programmers and communications engineers to update road infrastructure. Autonomous vehicles will need to know when traffic lights are going to change and where congestion is. From this information, vehicles will decide which route to travel, the best time to travel, how fast they should travel, and how close to the vehicles next to them they should be - making a safer, faster and more efficient journey on the road. To enable autonomous vehicles to do this effectively, road authorities will need to make live traffic data available. Traffic signals will need to be modified to broadcast data. Road markings and information from highway electronics will need to be upgraded and maintained in top condition.

Are autonomous vehicles safe?

Autonomous vehicles are much safer than vehicles driven by people, so we will see far less accidents on our roads in the future. They eliminate issues around unpredictable drivers by communicating with vehicles around them, so they know where they’re going, where the road is, and where the vehicles are around them so they can easily deal with everyday incidents.

Are autonomous vehicles better for the environment?

There will be less pollution in our cities. With less vehicles needed for the entire population, we will see a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Autonomous vehicles provide fuel savings compared to conventional vehicles because they are much better at braking than people. They look ahead and see what is happening far beyond the human eye can and adjust their speed to be at the right place at the right time so that they avoid stop start motions, heavy breaking and heavy acceleration. This also reduces wear and tear on the vehicles and provides a smoother ride for the people on board.

How can car manufacturers adapt?

People buying the new driverless cars want the highest level of safety, and reliable technology that they can turn on and off as their mood desires. When these factors are combined, other ‘manual’ vehicles will struggle to be sold. And fewer people will want to own a car once they can use autonomous vehicles on a share basis. You will be able to change vehicles depending on how you want to use them. If you want a big vehicle to go away on a holiday, you can book a big vehicle. If you are just going into town, you can order a small vehicle. Far fewer vehicles will be on the road network but they will be doing more kilometres and will be used by more people to travel short distances.

Traditional car manufactures are in trouble, with Apple, Google and Tesla taking the lead and starting taking over their business. Car manufacturers need to team up and become the production arms of these players. The component manufactures can also benefit from this new technology but it will be more from the electronic components than the mechanical components.

How will autonomous vehicles be serviced?

The need for traditional mechanics will decline. Computers on board autonomous vehicles will identify car maintenance issues. Then, the vehicle will contact its own service centre to see if a wireless software fix is available. If the issue is more serious, it will take itself out of service and report to the maintenance depot.

It is also worth noting that electric vehicles have far fewer moving parts and far less servicing requirements than conventional vehicles.

How will insurance work?

Insurance companies will change because we won’t have as many crashes as we do today. It will be much safer to have the vehicle drive itself than people driving the vehicles. The autonomous cars will always follow the road rules, so are unlikely to get into difficulty as often. Even when they do, they will stay in their own lane. If they cannot safely swerve, they will break using maximum force better than a human can. They will also tighten safety belts before impact, flash headlights and hazard lights, and sound the horn, all at the same time to minimise the effect of the impact.

Volvo is planning to have a number of autonomous vehicles running in Gothenberg, Sweden, in 2017. The vehicles will be insured by Volvo and people will be able to use them to travel to work. When the vehicle is in autonomous mode, Volvo will take full responsibility and liability for any accident the vehicle causes because they are so confident with their autonomous systems.

Can the public see autonomous vehicles in action?

Manufacturers have been largely keeping their autonomous vehicles under wraps, with the technology still in the research phase.

We are starting to see public showings of autonomous vehicles in operation, such as the recent demonstration at Google’s headquarters in California.

Autonomous vehicles will soon be coming to a street near you. Look out for them as they will make getting around easier, safer and simpler!  

What do driverless cars mean for me as a road user?

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