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Posted: September 24, 2012

Driverless highways: Creating cars that talk to the road

...and roads that talk back

Thomas Frey

I recently spoke 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 seen to be happening on a daily basis, the shift will also cause huge changes to occur in area’s 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 every thousand people. In Japan, that number is 600 per thousand and South Korea, slightly under 400. But in Shanghai, the car per 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. First as an expensive option for luxury cars, but eventually it will 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 2 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. However, it will also 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 its environment, a relationship that is far different than the current human to road relationship, which is largely emotion-based.

For this reason, it would be foolish of highway engineers to ignore the opportunity to build roads as intelligent as the vehicles that drive on them.

An intelligent car coupled with an intelligent road is a powerful force. Together they will accelerate our mobility as a society, and do it in a stellar fashion

  • Lane Compression – Highway lanes need only be as wide as the vehicles themselves. Narrow vehicles can be in very narrow lanes, and with varying sizes and shapes of vehicles, an intelligent road system will have the ability to shift lane widths on the fly.
  • Distance Compression – With machine-controlled vehicles, the distance between bumpers can be compressed from multiple car lengths to mere inches.
  • Time Compression – Smart roads are fast roads. Travel speed will be increased at the same time safety is improved.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Depending on how liability laws change, driverless vehicles may eliminate auto insurance as we know it now. The big question is who is liable when there is a crash of driverless vehicles? There will be malfunctions, since every machine breaks. Is the manufacturer liable? Is it the owner? Will people own their own vehicles, or will they be rented per use or per year? If the roads are smart, who provides this data and what is that entity's liability for crashes? By John Unruh on 2012 09 25
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