How can engineers plan for a driverless future?

A revolution in our road infrastructure is around the corner, and engineers will have important decisions to make. Jenny McArthur explains the need to understand the technology of autonomous cars and its potential.

Jenny McArthur examines how engineers can plan for a future built around autonomous vehicles
Jenny McArthur examines how engineers can plan for a future built around autonomous vehicles
  • Updated: 26 August 2016
  • Author: Jenny McArthur, UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering PhD Student

The mobility revolution promised by autonomous vehicles illustrates how new technology can change the very notion of what infrastructure is, and the services it can provide.

In some cases new technologies create incremental improvements in cost-effectiveness or service efficiency – such as improved signalling systems to reduce train delays, or countdown timers for transit users. In other cases, technology brings a complete transformation, changing the fundamental nature of infrastructure.

Connected and autonomous vehicles appear to hold this potential. But successful implementation requires careful consideration of what the technology can offer, how to design sensibly to account for future uncertainty and avoid technological path-dependence.

Future visions

The conversation around autonomous vehicles is varied. Enthusiasm for the new mobility revolution suggests travel will be better and more efficient than ever before. More skeptical perspectives warn against ethical and legal challenges, and a dystopian future where city streets are over-run with platoons of driverless pods.

Engineers find themselves in between these alternate visions of an autonomous utopia and dystopia, and are tasked with making sure that the transport system of the future actually works for the people who use it. Autonomous and connected vehicles do hold great potential to improve urban transport. Vehicles can be made safer, and give non-drivers, elderly and disabled people more freedom. Vast amounts of space that are currently dedicated to car parking could be put to much better use.

However like any technology, its success depends not just on the invention, but appropriate application of the technology that meet people’s needs.

For infrastructure providers, key decisions for connected and autonomous vehicles relate to how space is used on the transport network, how autonomous vehicles are governed and regulated, and how to integrate planned investments for active, transit, and private transport modes with the anticipated future of autonomous vehicles. Infrastructure is prone to “technological lock-in” – large investments are often designed for one kind of use, and are physically embedded into the landscape – making it impossible or very expensive to reverse a bad decision. Understanding technology better can support good decision-making.

Technology’s transformative impacts

Technology is a collection of means, defined not by what they are, but the potential they enable. Philosopher Martin Heidegger defined technology as a “bringing forth”, instrumental in bringing about a new reality. For urban transport this new reality might simply be a shorter commute time, or perhaps a totally new paradigm of mobility-as-a-service, where the way you plan your travel and make everyday decisions is transformed.

Design of infrastructure systems is usually the domain of experts in what the technology is – vehicle-to-vehicle communication networks or road pavement foundations – but not necessarily what the technology is for. Since technology can bring transformation, infrastructure requires a user-centred design approach so that the “new reality” created is in line with human needs.

New technologies don’t always lead to an improvement in every aspect of the technical system but rather exchanging one bundle of characteristics for another. Trade-offs are likely if the new technology qualitatively changes the transport services provided. For example, private vehicles drastically improved the personal mobility of individuals, but took up significantly more space and city streets soon became congested. Full trains still move, but full roads do not, thus the new technology created new problems as quickly as it solved old ones. For connected and autonomous vehicles, issues may arise and user-centred decision-making is crucial to ensure that trade-offs are managed in a way that doesn’t create as many new problems as autonomous vehicles can solve.

Technological systems not purely technical

Decision-making often centres on selection of technologies, treating the technical system itself as the central and definitive factor in the success of a transport system. However the governance, regulatory, and operating models adopted are as intrinsically “infrastructural” as the technical asset itself. The progression of technologies is often treated as the success or failure of a purely technical system, adopting a kind of technological Darwinism that suggests that the “superior” technology will naturally emerge and supersede inferior alternatives. While it would be convenient to rely on natural selection for better urban transport, the more mundane aspects of governance and regulation can make or break a new innovation.

The development of telephone networks in the United States illustrates this, in the research of Harvard professor José Gómez-Ibáñez: the interplay between innovation, firm economics, regulation and competition were as instrumental as the technical potential of the telephone system itself. Therefore the important decisions are not only which technical system performs the best, but clear identification of the outcomes the new technology will provide, and the operating and regulatory models that will ensure they are realised.

Factoring in uncertainty

Finally, technological development is uncertain and the exact timing, number of early adopters, and public acceptance of an innovation is difficult to predict. Decisions are made with partial information and relative uncertainty about the future. Design and planning decisions can build in the option to adapt or repurpose assets in the future, providing more flexibility and mitigating the risk of uncertainty. Autonomous vehicles could dramatically transform our transport, and for the better. But to safeguard the future of urban transport, engineers must treat technology appropriately to avoid unintended consequences or path-dependent outcomes.

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