The future of road safety in a driverless society

Ten years ago, the idea of a self-driving car existed solely in the realm of science fiction. Fast forward to 2020, and we’ve got a handful of models that can take over while on the road and drive themselves for a short period. Most manufacturers are working on creating a fully self-driving car, with many hoping to accomplish that goal within the next two years. 

As this trend continues, one thing becomes apparent — the roads of the future are going to look a lot different than they do now. What will driving a fully autonomous vehicle (AV) be like, and what sort of regulations would these cars and trucks need to follow to ensure everyone on the road is safe?

Autonomous regulations

Around the world, governments at all levels are introducing autonomous vehicle regulations.

Singapore, a leader in AV infrastructure and testbed for driverless vehicle tech, became the first country in the world to legislate that motor vehicles don’t need human drivers in 2017. In China, new road safety laws cover AV testing nationwide, and several local governments have released their own legislation.

As of 2018, 15 U.S. states have enacted bills related to autonomous vehicles, with 33 states at least introducing legislation. Most of these laws have to do with whether or not companies can test self-driving automobiles on public roads. These regulations have less to do with the ultimate place of these autonomous cars and trucks on our highways once the technology is ready for full deployment. 

In time, we will need legislation that regulates how autonomous vehicles are allowed to interact with human-driven models when they meet on the road. We will also require regulations that define who has the right of way when a self-driving car meets a human-driven one. The legislation will need to be comprehensive because it will likely determine the programming that controls these vehicles and makes them safe to be on the road alongside human drivers. 

We’re still a couple of years away from seeing the first fully autonomous vehicle roll off the assembly lines.

Many companies, however, are already starting to deploy experimental self-driving cars under pilot projects — like Nuro’s self-driving delivery vehicles or Waymo’s driverless taxis. Smart cities will need to begin preparing now if they want to be ready for the arrival of autonomous cars on a larger scale.

Autonomous cars and smart cities

Self-driving cars won’t just make our commutes easier and safer, though that is a beneficial side effect. They will also change the way city planners and engineers look at transportation infrastructure. Right now, traffic signals are designed to accommodate human drivers, not autonomous vehicles that rely on machine vision and are capable of communicating wirelessly with smart systems. 

Our entire transportation infrastructure will need to change. Lane markings, for example, will need to be rendered clearly or redesigned so autonomous cars can read them accurately with their machine vision algorithms.

A driver may be able to infer where their lane is, even if the road markings have been worn down or are covered by snow, but an AV might not be able to. While some states are already adding special AV-friendly markings on highways, cities have been slower to move.

Traffic systems will also need a revamp. While they probably won’t be shelved as a result of autonomous vehicles, smart city planners may be able to make them more efficient. Data from self-driving cars could be automatically transferred to city management systems, allowing for more accurate predictions about traffic flow. These predictions could help planners tweak and optimize traffic flow and signaling.

City planners may also be able to create safer conditions for pedestrians, as well. Some researchers have suggested that self-driving cars may be able to receive data from a smart city’s traffic system — like whether or not a pedestrian has requested to cross at a crosswalk — and use that information to make driving decisions.

Streets may also become narrower because self-driving cars won’t need the extra space between lanes we currently leave to account for human error. Parking spaces could be smaller as well, which will allow cities to optimize their existing lots and garages.

Looking toward the future

It won’t be long before self-driving cars are science fact instead of science fiction. What we can do today is push for city systems that protect everyone who uses the streets, and advocate for legislation — like the SELF DRIVE Act — designed to make these cars safer. 

We may see a time in the not too distant future where self-driving cars represent most vehicles on the road, but only if we can make them safe enough that people are willing to climb in the passenger seat and let their car take the wheel.

This article was written by Kayla Matthews (kaylaematthews@gmail.com), tech journalist and writer.
Header image: metamorworks.

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