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Driverless cars could put spotlight on road standards

Road maintenance could become even more important in an era of driverless cars, according to an expert.

Elizabeth Box, head of research at insight body the RAC Foundation, told NCE that ensuring highways were at specified standards would be critical to making automated transport work.

She was speaking after the government gave the green light for trials of driverless vehicles on public roads in the UK.

The RAC Foundation is on the advisory board of the £8M Gateway project to evaluate the technology in Greenwich.

Box said: “Some of the technology in driverless vehicles relies on white lines, so road maintenance will be important.

“There are also questions about segregating pedestrians and vehicles – the way the infrastructure is developed depends on how the cars are ultimately used.”

Although the trials taking place in four UK cities over the next three years will be done in controlled environments with humans ready to take control, the future could be very different.

Driverless vehicles could effectively communicate with each other and intelligent infrastructure to avoid congestion, accidents and poor compliance with sustainability guidelines.

“Cars would not operate in isolation anymore, so we could have a much more efficient system, along with more optimal braking and fuel use,” said Box.

“Drivers are sceptical about losing control of their vehicles but over the next five to 10 years it will become much more familiar.”

The potential benefits of a highway system filled with fully automated vehicles are manifold.

“In the future we could see better use of time in vehicles,” said Box. “You might be able to have meetings in your car, or even an office environment.

“It could also help provide mobility to people who can’t drive right now. I’ve heard talk about about the potential of [parents using driverless vehicles] to escort children to school.”

Environmental concerns will need to be overcome, alongside public scepticism about the technology, before automated vehicles become the norm, Box warned.

“What happens to walking and cycling?” She asked. “This technology might initially become more common in urban environments.”

RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister said driverless cars could “give drivers their lives back”.

“The time gained by not being hunched over the steering wheel, plus reductions in stress levels, could be transformational. Who knows, one day in the future, road rage might actually be a thing of the past,” he said.

He added that the technology could see a huge increase in demand for vehicles.

“The door is open for almost everyone to have motorised mobility, from the very old to the very young to the frail. If you do away with licensing requirements then millions more people – and cars – could be on the road.

“The development of autonomous vehicles needs to go hand in hand with changes in highway management and car ownership.”

Several insurance companies are involved in the initial trials, with Box mooting a potential change from driver liability to manufacturer responsibility.

Nick Jones, transport technologist at public body Innovate UK, told NCE automated vehicles could play their part in reshaping social patterns.

“We hope this technology will develop into more intelligent mobility. We need to understand how people may change their travel arrangements,” he said.

“Will driverless cars take people to train stations? Or will they serve other purposes?”

The trials and the data they produce could have huge implications for engineers, he added.

“We want to avoid building more roads – and that’s about how we better use the infrastructure we already have,” said Jones.

 

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