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Why Do Self-Driving Cars Need Smart Roads?

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【Summary】Today’s roads were designed to support Henry Ford’s vision of humans driving cars. Since the release of the first automobile in 1908 (the Ford Model T), not a lot has changed in the way cities build and use roads. For self-driving cars, this could be a problem.

Original Michael Cheng    Oct 24, 2016 6:50 PM PT
Why Do Self-Driving Cars Need Smart Roads?
Michael Cheng

By Michael Cheng

Today's roads were designed to support Henry Ford's vision of humans driving cars. Since the release of the first automobile in 1908 (the Ford Model T), not a lot has changed in the way cities build and use roads.

For self-driving cars, this could be a problem.

Smart road 1.jpg

Upgrading Road Infrastructure

Currently, engineers are relying on maps, crowdsourcing and satellite guidance to teach driverless cars how to navigate effortlessly to their destination. It's a slow and outdated process: updates to maps are released every few weeks and self-driving vessels "learn" about changes made to everyday routes, streets, landmarks and obstructions. Such methods are sufficient for now, because there are only a handful of driverless cars on the road; and most are participating in closely monitored pilot programs by manufacturers developing the technology. 

But in the future, when self-driving cars become the norm for public and private transportation, cities will need to equip roadways with systems that offer updates in real-time. "Driverless cars need to ‘see' some information that's blocks or miles away in real time—such as a dog running into the street, a speeding ambulance, or a swerving driver," explained Brent Skorup from Back Channel.

One of the most effective ways to achieve real-time updates for safe, autonomous driving is by upgrading road infrastructure. By deploying numerous roadside sensors around cities, driverless vehicles can improve their ability to choose fast-moving routes. When coupled with on-board sensors (these days, self-driving sensors (LIDAR-powered devices) are capable of "seeing" as far as 200 meters), cars will have more time to react to unforeseen accidents. Smart roads could also push data to other devices, including mobile phones and wearables.

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Traffic and Air Quality

Smarter roads could also improve efficiency in cities dealing with overwhelming traffic problems. A study from Carnegie Mellon University, which tested the effectiveness of using robust sensors to mitigate traffic in Pittsburgh, proved that the application of smart roads can be extremely beneficial for commuters. During the study, researchers installed traffic sensors with motion recognition and signal-to-signal communication features on busy routes around the city. The results revealed that traveling times were reduced by up to 26 percent and vehicles stopped less frequently by up to 40 percent.

Another bonus that researchers failed to take into consideration during the initial phase of the study was the smart signal's ability to reduce emissions. By decreasing time spent on the road, scientists were able to improve air quality by an estimated 21 percent. This technology is currently being applied in several populated cities, including New York and San Jose. Interestingly, Singapore pioneered the practice of using this type of smart sensor to improve road conditions. The country has been using smart traffic signals for almost seven years.

"Smart roads and infrastructure isn't just for first world players, either. City planners in Kolkata, India are in the planning stages of an ambitious, Wi-Fi powered "Quick Response" code system that will use signs and signals to facilitate user navigation and even transmit emergency reporting," said Brant Henne from Business Insider.

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