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Paving new information highways.

  • 16. March 2017
  • Autonomous Driving
  • Illustration: Dave Haenggi
  • Text: Steffan Heuer

At the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, traffic experts discuss what type of infrastructure autonomous vehicles will need, and who will finance it.

Forget guardrails and massive parking garages. Connected autonomous vehicles (AV) require a very different type of transportation infrastructure than today’s cities and highways offer. They depend on fast and ubiquitous data networks, connected traffic signals and can navigate narrower lanes. Yet updating that infrastructure is a time-consuming and expensive effort that state and local governments most likely can’t handle. Instead, they should seek private partners to finance or pay for the updates.

That’s the advice of transportation experts mulling the infrastructure of tomorrow at the tech conference SXSW in Austin. The definition of infrastructure itself, much like the road network in the U.S., is frozen in place and needs to change, said Tim Sylvester, CEO of Kansas City-based Integrated Roadways.

The company works with the state of Missouri to test its “smart pavement” system, which embeds digital technology and fiberoptic connectivity into concrete. “The technology in vehicles has advanced dramatically and they demand so much more technology to support them.”

Evolution of mobility

The rapid progress in connected automated vehicles, which can be measured in 18 month-long cycles, stands in stark contrast to road networks which are often several decades old. “We are still learning how to build good cities,” Sylvester said. The evolution of mobility will continue to change urban design. “Your children will experience dramatically repurposed real estate,” he predicted.

Examples are larger green spaces and sidewalks since self-driving vehicles can park themselves more densely and further away from the user to pull up on demand rather than taking up curb space. What’s more, Sylvester pointed to the uncertain fate of clover-leaf interchanges for highways. They are cheaper than fly-over constructions and are still being built, but generally seen as outdated because their tight turns unnecessarily slow down fast and unimpeded traffic flow.

Changing over to a more machine-readable environment requires significant funding, which is traditionally provided by public entities like states and municipalities and therefore in short supply.

Since the transformation will happen in stages, infrastructure must for the foreseeable future accommodate both human drivers, who need visual cues, and an AV fleet that will use machine vision to “see” physical objects, but more importantly relies on digital signals that are invisible to people. That way, the stop sign a human sees is only virtually perceived by an AV right behind him.

Tasks cities must tackle are maintenance of lane striping and consistent signage that ADAS systems can see to digitizing traffic signals so vehicles can connect to their environment through DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications). The latter is one area where the U.S. is seriously behind, said Johanna Zmud, senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and director of its Washington, DC, office.

' We are still learning how to build good cities. '

Tim Sylvester, CEO of Integrated Roadways Kansas City

 Far from reaching the goal

She pointed to the fact that the association of state highways and transportation officials had issued a challenge to all 50 states to digitize a mere 20 of their intersections by 2020. A look at the current map shows that’s far from accomplished.

The big question is where the money will come from to modernize roads and other parts of future cities to be ready for connected automated vehicles. Hector Negroni, head of Fundamental Credit Opportunities which helps officials secure infrastructure financing, lamented

that the funding model hadn’t changed in decades, consisting of tax dollars and occasional user fees.

The AV revolution, however, is calling for innovative sources of funding. They include financial input from tech companies that depend on the physical and digital networks to make their connected vehicles and services successful. “We have to get the tech companies involved to help fund infrastructure,” said Negroni.

' We have to get the tech companies involved to help fund infrastructure. '

Hector Negroni, Head of Fundamental Credit Opportunities

Searching for new sources of funding

He also suggested charging drivers taxes or fees if they want to access premium services such as intelligent roadways or a faster network. Startups like Airbnb and Uber had demonstrated the opportunities in identifying services people are willing to pay for.

That includes monetizing the data generated in and around vehicles. While these bits can become a valuable source of revenue, it’s unclear who owns the data, explained TTI scientist Zmud. Does it belong to the vehicle manufacturer, the car’s owner or the service provider who aggregates it? “All say they own it, all want to monetize it,” she summarized a report on the topic, praising Europe for its open data policies.

Most cities, though, currently don’t have the technical capabilities to process and monetize the rich data sets that run through them, instead often giving it away to third parties to crunch.

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