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In Preparation for Driverless Cars, States Start Upgrading Roads

Here’s what some places are already doing to accommodate self-driving and connected vehicles.

(AP/Tony Avelar)
The cars of the future may not need drivers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be self-sufficient. In fact, they could force states and cities to upgrade their roads and other infrastructure.

What kind of infrastructure tomorrow’s vehicles will require, of course, depends on which technologies become commonplace. “Connected” vehicles that communicate with other vehicles, traffic lights and weather sensors, for example, will require more infrastructure than self-driving cars. But even driverless cars might require road upgrades.

“As we build new roads, are there things we need to put in place now?” asked Kirk Steudle, the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). 

Here’s a look at what states and localities are already doing to accommodate driverless cars and connected vehicles.

Improving Pavement Markings

"Pavement markings are a real easy one," said Steudle. But something that may be necessary to upgrade nonetheless.

Driverless cars rely on cameras, radar and laser-mapping tools to determine where they are. (GPS, at least for now, is not precise enough to keep cars on the road.) Those cameras use striping and other pavement markings to understand their surroundings, but the quality and consistency of those markings can vary greatly.

After Delphi, an auto parts manufacturer, took its driverless vehicle on a cross-country trip, company officials told Steudle that despite nominally uniform standards across states, the pavement markings were actually all different.

Even within one state, the standards can vary. Automakers noticed when Michigan highway crews in one region started painting the dashed lines between lanes slightly differently, for example, and asked Steudle whether that would be the new statewide standard. It was the first time Steudle heard about it.

“The hard infrastructure, the pavement and the pavement markings, that’s ours,” he said. “We have to, frankly, just take better care of it, and it has to be prioritized.”

Making Cars Talk to Traffic Technology

Connected vehicles can't communicate with stoplights and pavement sensors unless those devices broadcast their information.

Those traffic devices, in turn, can benefit from information from the connected vehicles. For example, they can determine how long a left-turn signal should last and whether it should turn green before or after the light for drivers going straight.

The state of Michigan, the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor recently put the idea of gathering more data to the test. For more than a year, about 2,800 connected vehicles traveled Ann Arbor’s streets, sharing information with the city’s traffic lights and road sensors. Even after the pilot program finished, the city has kept connecting more infrastructure to its network.

The result is an incredible amount of data to store and analyze, said Craig Hupy, the public services administrator for Ann Arbor. The city has been building out its fiber optic network to handle all the information. The same network can be used for the city’s tornado sirens, water infrastructure and even a few schools.

Expanding the network used to be a tough sell, said Hupy, but now the city’s chief financial officer constantly asks whether the public works department is adding capacity and whether it will be enough. 

“Build more bandwidth than you ever think you’ll need because you’ll use it,” he advises.

Of course, a robust fiber optic network doesn’t come cheap. Steudle, the MDOT director, said states and local governments would likely have to work with private communications companies to figure out how to expand traffic data networks.

“There’s no way you’re going to put a roadside unit every quarter mile across 4 million miles of roads in the country," he said. "That’s not going to happen."

Steudle also cautioned that governments installing connected devices need to keep current on what technologies automakers are using now and what they plan to use in the future.

“Does it have the latest technology? Is it upgradable? Is it open?” he asked. “The worst thing that would happen is if someone would buy the Betamax version of a traffic control system,” referring to the defunct format of videocassettes that was eclipsed by the VHS format.

Developing Apps

Colorado is launching two efforts to bring the benefits of connected vehicles to a key corridor.

The goal is to improve safety and reduce congestion along a critical stretch of Interstate 70 that connects Denver with mountain ski resorts. State officials say that congestion on that stretch costs $1 billion a year in lost productivity.

One of the state’s new initiatives aims to equip 1,000 vehicles owned by the general public with smartphone apps that will gather information about road and traffic conditions, much the way that the traffic apps Google Maps and Waze already do. But Colorado wants to go one step further and develop an app that will notify drivers of problems ahead with voice alerts. The trick is to make the app useful without it becoming too annoying.

“It’s one thing to be able to deploy this type of technology. It’s another thing for the public to embrace it,” said Amy Ford, communications director for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). “That’s going to be a big piece of this pilot.”

The department will also be outfitting its own fleet (such as maintenance vehicles and snow plows) and commercial trucks with short-range radio transmitters, the communications technology most commonly used for connected vehicles. Those vehicles will mostly share the type of information gathered by the smartphone apps, but a few plows will be equipped with friction sensors.

The vehicle-based friction sensors, along with similar pavement monitoring devices, can help officials decide when to enforce the state’s tire chain laws. CDOT hopes to roll out its programs by next winter.

“In the big picture, when you combine these programs, you’re getting an incredibly data-rich environment,” said Ford.

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