Smart cars, self-healing pavement, and the roads of the future
When I was young, I had a book about the future. This book was already a couple of decades old by the time I got my hands on it, but it still captured my imagination. I recall a pictured scene of leisurely citizens wandering through glass-domed urban environments filled with green space, the assertion is that in the future as robots toiled, humans could relax, socialize, and play tennis in safe, clean cityscapes.
To a small child, this vision of life without work didn’t really resonate in the way that it might for me today, but there was another aspect of this rendering, flying cars, that a six-year-old could really embrace. Cars were already pretty exciting as they were, whizzing along perennially stuck to the ground, so adding the ability to swoop across the landscape sans road was something I could really get on board with.
Unfortunately, those flying cars are still the stuff of fiction. I looked, and looked, and looked, and it seems that roads are not going anywhere. They may get a little smarter, and the cars may start driving themselves, but roads are here to stay.
At least there’s hope for using our existing roads more efficiently. In case you haven’t heard, the transition to self-driving cars is already underway. Sooner than later, roadways will be humming with vehicles capable of reducing traffic and energy use through smart re-routing and “platooning” (synchronized cars driving very close together to among other things reduce wind resistance). Sound far-fetched?
Just think about some of the technologies already in vehicles today:
- Adaptive Cruise Control that not only brakes when approaching slower vehicles but will actually control speed in stop & go traffic.
- Active Lane Assist that not only warns you when you are straying from your lane, but will gently correct the car back on course.
- Pedestrian Detection Systems that apply the brakes if a wayward pedestrian or cyclist is detected in the path of the vehicle.
- Self-Parking Vehicles that first identify a parking space big enough to fit the vehicle and then parks the car for you.*
If you start adding all these technologies together you start to realize that cars already do a lot of the driving themselves.
Case in point:
The good news is that these “free-agent” vehicles currently being developed do not require all cars on the road to have the technology, allowing a phased approach to their introduction. An even bigger advantage is that there is less reliance on changes to infrastructure to support the transition.
The bad news from an infrastructure standpoint is that it will probably result in more traffic. As more traffic is able to make more efficient use of the road, and “drivers” are able to be more productive during their journeys, users will likely take to the road more frequently.
In a best-case scenario, more people move faster but more likely is that the Law of Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion comes into effect. This law, proposed by Anthony Downs way back in 1962, states that during peak hours, congestion rises to meet capacity. Back then Downs was applying it to the futile practice of adding additional lanes to highways (i.e. more lanes means more traffic). But it could just as well apply to the potential throughput benefits of automated cars. In either case, this means more vehicles per hour and more stress on the pavement.
It would seem that every solution brings a problem, but every problem is just waiting for a solution. How about self-healing roads for self-driving cars? Sounds far-fetched, but it already exists—porous asphalt with a steel additive that, when treated with heat every four years, can double the life of a road:
Even self-healing roads will start to deteriorate at some point. How about a network of sensors feeding back pavement condition information on a real-time basis so we could fix small problems before they became big ones? This seems like another opportunity to take advantage of all these vehicles on the road with wireless connectivity and massive computing power.
Rather than embedding sensors in the road and having to maintain additional infrastructure, why not equip vehicles with sensors that measure characteristics like grip and ride quality and communicate that data to a centralized system that analyzes all that aggregated data for you and automatically prescribes a best practice maintenance plan.
The City of Boston has already produced an iPhone app which reports potholes back to the city based on the motion of a vehicle. The technology is rudimentary, but the principle is solid, and as vehicle technology increases it is not far-fetched to imagine pavement condition sensors on city buses or even private vehicles.
So it looks like roads are here to stay, but that doesn’t mean they, and the vehicles that we “drive” won’t change.
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