New Business Cases for the Deployment of Automated Vehicles

By Paul Carlson, Chief Technology Officer, Road Infrastructure Inc.

Prior to the pandemic, one of the hottest topics in our industry was the potential for automated vehicles to increase safety and mobility while decreasing congestion (although that last point is highly debatable). At the peak of the pandemic’s impact, we experienced several new behaviors that could disrupt pre-COVID trends, including defining successful business cases for the automated vehicle industry.

Many people fortunate enough to maintain employment throughout the COVID-19 crisis worked from home. Those initial practices proved effective and led many companies to institute long-term and even permanent remote work policies. Assuming this trend continues, how will increased telework policies impact transit ridership and the need for pre-COVID levels of downtown office space?

People living and working in downtown locations will still need mobility. However, remote work, social distance practices, and increased sanitization protocols have essentially eliminated or severely cut shared micro-mobility options (shared bicycles and scooters). In many cases, pedestrian and private bicycle use increased so much that streets were closed to vehicular traffic.

How will these trends impact automated vehicle companies working to provide fleets of robo-taxis in downtown areas? Will people want to ride in a robo-taxi that already transported others?

Prior to the pandemic, people were somewhat uneasy about trusting automated vehicle technology. Some early data suggests that view has already changed, particularly in the case of automated goods movement (such as delivery of groceries and prescription medication). Will this trust extend to privately owned automated vehicles?

In China, where the post-COVID era is more mature, traffic levels during rush hour are reportedly higher than pre-COVID levels, partly due to an increase in single occupancy vehicles. Increased congestion in the U.S. could spark a desire for more automated vehicle technologies that provide driving conveniences, such as traffic jam assist, lane departure prevention, and automated highway driving.

So, what does this mean for the future of automated vehicles and the roadway safety industry? These trends point to possible outcomes that might be considered “no-regret” opportunities. For starters, there appear to be at least two business cases for automated vehicles that remain robust—automated goods movement and privately-owned vehicles with automated driving features.

If automated goods movement is realized, and streets remain closed to vehicular traffic, new street designs might be needed to delineate automated goods movement from pedestrians and bicycles. The traditional cross-section of narrow sidewalks and wider paths for vehicles might give way to wider pedestrian usage areas and narrower “lanes” for automated goods movement. This would then allow new and interesting concepts to be layered into street designs to promote localized culture, such as increased use of artistic designs on the pavement.

A surge in privately-owned vehicles with automated features could lead to the public’s better understanding of the value of maintaining roadway infrastructure in a “good state of repair.” As people pay extra for the automated (i.e., convenience) features in their SAE J3016 Level 2 and 3 vehicles, they will expect those features to be available and reliable.
We already know that one of the best ways to do this is to provide uniformity in pavement markings. In the U.S., the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) recently made recommendations for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) that would support automated vehicles while also increasing safety along many of the nation’s rural highways. Meanwhile, the European Commission has acknowledged that the continuously growing uptake of automated driver assistance systems rely on the quality and good detectability of road markings and has announced plans to draft a common set of specifications which could help those systems to operate more continuously and more reliably than under current circumstances.

In the months to come, it will be important for road stakeholders in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere to follow these trends and engage in the dialogue to be ready for whatever develops in the post-COVID era. There will be no better place to do so than at the International Road Federation’s 18th IRF World Meeting & Exhibition scheduled in November 2021 in Dubai.

Paul Carlson

Chief Technology Officer, Road Infrastructure Inc.

Paul Carlson is chief technology officer at Road Infrastructure Inc. where he focuses on advancing highway infrastructure initiatives related to connected and automated vehicles. He holds a doctorate in civil engineering and provides thought leadership for national organizations working to evolve highway infrastructure as automated vehicles become more prevalent. He chairs the SAE International Highway Infrastructure Task Force and the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Device Connected Automated Vehicle Task Force, is former co-chair of the TRB Traffic Control Devices Committee, and serves on the International Road Federation’s Board of Directors.

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