Driverless Highways: Creating Cars That Talk to the Roads

By Frey, Thomas | Journal of Environmental Health, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Driverless Highways: Creating Cars That Talk to the Roads


Frey, Thomas, Journal of Environmental Health


Recently I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on the "Future of Mobility" in Shanghai, China. The event was produced by the very forward-thinking people at Lanxess, a German-based chemical company that broke ground the day before on a new facility to expand its already significant base of operation in Shanghai.

As the world's leading producer of synthetic rubber for the automotive industry, Lanxess is very interested in positioning itself at the forefront of our mobile future. One of the biggest trends for this industry is the push to make vehicles driverless.

While most people have been focusing on the driverless technology inside the vehicle itself, where noteworthy accomplishments seem to be happening on a daily basis, the shift will also cause huge changes to occur in areas like insurance, public policy, parking, delivery services, and especially highway engineering.

Even though the art of road building has been continually improving since the Roman Empire first decided to make roads a permanent part of their infrastructure, highways today remain as little more than dumb surfaces with virtually no data flowing between the vehicles and the road itself. That is about to change, and here's why.

China's Car Market

The number of cars in the U.S. works out to 800 for 1,000 people. In Japan, that number is 600 per 1,000 and South Korea it is slightly under 400. But in Shanghai, the carper-person ratio currently stands at 169 cars per 1,000.

While the people of China own a smaller percentage of vehicles than other countries, their wealth is increasing rapidly and more cars will soon add additional layers of complication to their already crowded streets.

But the Chinese government is acutely aware of this problem. Restrictions are already in place to limit the number of vehicles that can be licensed inside some of the larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

So where does that leave people who wish to become part of this emerging mobile lifestyle? Going driverless may hold some exciting new options.

Going Driverless

Driverless technology will initially require a driver, and it will creep into everyday use much as airbags did. It will first be an expensive option for luxury cars, but it will eventually become a safety feature required by governments.

The greatest benefits of this kind of automation won't be realized until the driver's hands are off the wheel. With over two million people involved in car accidents every year in the U.S., it won't take long for legislators to be convinced that driverless cars are a safer option.

The privilege of driving is about to be redefined.

Many aspects of driverless cars are overwhelmingly positive, such as saving lives and giving additional years of mobility to the aging senior population. It will also, however, be a very disruptive technology.

Driverless technologies will be blamed for destroying countless jobs--truck drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, limo drivers, traffic cops, parking lot attendants, ambulance drivers, first responders, doctors, and nurses will all see their careers impacted.

If done correctly, driverless vehicles may even deal a fatal blow to the auto insurance industry.

Creating Cars That Talk to the Roads

As cars become equipped with driverless technology, important things begin to happen. To compensate for the loss of a driver, vehicles will need to become more aware of their surroundings.

Working with cameras and other sensors, an onboard computer will log information over 10 times per second from short-range transmitters on surrounding road conditions, including where other cars are and what they are doing. This constant flow of data will give the vehicle a rudimentary sense of awareness.

With this continuous flow of sensory information, vehicles will begin to form a symbiotic relationship of sorts with their environment, a relationship that is far different from the current human-to-road relationship, which is largely emotion based. …

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