How Self-Driving Technology Can Shape Our Highways

Science Features The Cars
How Self-Driving Technology Can Shape Our Highways

Besides picking up where Sandra Bullock’s Crash left off, self-driving cars are populating roadways as much as imaginations. But research on how autonomous vehicles will affect the future is, at this point, largely speculative. Driving behaviors vary greatly depending upon regions, and it’s hard to predict how various factors will influence each other.

One constant in self-driving cars, however, is the knowledge that platooning—linking vehicles in close proximity to each other as they drive down the highway—can positively impact, and drastically change, transportation infrastructure. By creating an optimal amount of space between vehicles, platooning saves on gasoline intake, reduces commute times and creates major safety advantages. Here are five ways that platoons could shape transportation.

Safer and Roomier Highways

Platoons are not only one of the most effective ways to reduce gas consumption and commute times, but also free up considerable space on highways. “A typical freeway lane carries 2,000 vehicles an hour at capacity,” said Dr. Randolph Hall, vice president of research and Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at USC. Because platoons reduce space between vehicles, they “could increase that [ratio] to 3,000 or 4,000.” That, in turn, could reduce traffic congestion and delays on highways.

Platooning also reduces accidents due to their closer driving distances. “The basic reason being,” said Dr. Hall, “that if you’re traveling very close and something goes wrong, you’re traveling at such a velocity that the consequences of the collision would not be great.”

A Labor Industry Revolution

An M.I.T. study on platooning recently found that deploying platoons of trucks at regular intervals leads to more efficient and sustainable approach to delivery schedules. What this means, practically speaking, is that convoys of trucks—and not just delivery trucks, but trash trucks, postal service trucks and other commercial vehicles—might one day proceed en masse down our highways as gracefully and routinely as a choreographed ballet.

Dr. Hall pointed out that a major concern with this system is fewer manual labor jobs. But because onboarding commercial platooning will occur gradually, it provides a buffer for economic impact.

Man versus Machine Highways

Onboarding platooning technology takes time. Dr. Hall predicted at least a 15-year adoption curve for it to replace current delivery systems. In the meantime, he described a “mixed fleet” scenario, where traffic contains manual and automated vehicles alike. Mixed fleets could—for a while at least—turn highways into a showdown of “man versus machine.” Because self driving cars are less aggressive than human drivers, they are more likely to be cut off and slowed down. On the flip side, platoons of vehicles—with mammoth delivery trucks especially—could dominate the highway, giving other drivers no choice but to follow their lead.

Platoons as Mass Transit Substitutes

The MIT researchers have gone on to study the effect of platooning to autonomous ride-sharing services. With Uber deploying (and retracting) self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco, one must wonder: could platoons of vehicles in congested cities like L.A., where it is near impossible to expand highways, form a viable alternative to mass transit systems?

It’s likely that such systems of transport could save fuel and prevent gridlock. But as Professor Victor Regnier of Architecture and Gerontology at U.S.C. pointed out, infrastructure varies so wildly throughout the U.S. that outcomes depend on a case-by-case basis. More likely, carpooling efforts will supplement, and not replace, mass transit in major cities. What is important in the meantime, according to Professor Regnier, is to look at how ridesharing will influence population density. Automated vehicles almost invariably mean that more people will have access to urban areas, leading to the replacement of parking facilities by residential and commercial enterprises.

empty parking lot.jpgPhoto by Alan Nakkash/Flickr

Revamped Parking Garages and Fewer Parking Lots

It’s likely that parking lots and garages for not just platoons, but all self-driving cars, will be redesigned and automated with higher parking density in mind. And fewer asphalt oases could increase urban density, decrease urban sprawl and result in fewer shopping carts barreling towards side doors.

But while many hopefuls envision transforming parking lots into parks and other recreational areas, Professor Victor Regnier of Architecture and Gerontology shared a more pragmatic vision. “In urban areas especially, land is still quite expensive,” he said. Housing, hotels, and other high revenue ventures are more probably outcomes. Bike lanes are a possibility—especially with fewer bad drivers threatening cyclists.

Professor Regnier was keen to point out that because the density of urban areas will only increase, “whatever mechanisms cities use to plan parks in order to balance the population influx should be enacted and paid attention to.”

The pendulum still swings on where self-driving technology will take us. In the meantime, sustainable outcomes and safety, at the least, are a safe bet.

Images: Susan Hemphill, CC-BY and Phillippe Vieux-Jeanton

Elisia Guerena is a Brooklyn based writer, who writes about tech, travel, feminism, and anything related to inner or outer space.

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