At one time, driverless cars were inconceivable. Even the US cartoon “Jetsons” family from the 1960s had to drive themselves. However, driverless cars are now a question of when, not if. Since fully autonomous vehicles are likely to be the future, questions such as, “What are the benefits of driverless vehicles?” and “How can they be realised?” must be answered.
The answer to both questions – and a critical development for civil contractors to pay attention to – includes vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology.
What is V2I?
When driving a vehicle, motorists read and react to everything going on around them. The same is true for driverless cars. That’s where V2I comes in.
V2I is the next generation of intelligent transportation systems (ITS). V2I technology, its supporters argue, enables wireless exchange of information and data between individual smart vehicles and road infrastructure. The information is transmitted via a fibre-optic line that connects each element.
Information is gathered from traffic signals, road signs, street lights, signage, lane markings, etc. Data related to traffic congestion, weather apps, construction zones, parking availability, street lights and more can be used as well.
While many of these benefits can be realised by drivers today, proponents of V2I say they will be essential if driverless cars become mainstream in the future.
Increase in mobility
While Brits may love cars, the top priority for most motorists when driving is getting from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible. That’s why one of the key aims of nearly every infrastructure project is increased mobility.
By communicating with drivers – or the car, in the case of driverless cars – regarding the right speed to drive safely, V2I increases mobility. It also increases mobility through traffic light cameras and sensors that sense traffic and communicate with one another to synchronise timing. By adjusting the timing of traffic lights based on traffic, cars spend less time waiting at traffic lights.
Vehicles will also be able to navigate roadways more efficiently with V2I technology, proponents say, since data related to traffic congestion will be available. With this information, drivers can take the fastest or most efficient route. This benefits individual drivers who can spend the minimal time necessary commuting, leaving roads less congested.
According to the UK’s Department for Transport, idling can use up to two litres of fuel per hour, emitting more than 5.26kg of CO2.
Some local authorities in the UK levy a fixed penalty notice for emission offences and stationary idling under The Road Traffic (Vehicle Emissions) (Fixed Penalty) (England) Regulations 2002. And there’s potential for the fine to increase to £80.
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There is also the myth that idling helps an engine; it doesn’t. According to the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme, idling means incomplete combustion, leading to a build-up of residues in an engine, increasing wear and tear.
Yet idling can be eradicated in a car that is connected to V2I. The intelligent systems will know when to switch off the engine and start it again. Many modern cars have this as an economy feature.
A reduction in idling is beneficial for electric cars for similar reasons. The energy will be used more efficiently, meaning less frequent charging and usage of the grid.
V21 can also help with car safety. Worldwide, car crashes lead to 1.35 million fatalities a year. Therefore, transportation authorities are always looking for ways to improve vehicle safety, and experts say V2I can increase it in multiple ways.
Accidents often happen because a driver does something that others on the road don’t expect. Predictability and consistency lead to safety. Drivers changing lanes without care and attention, for instance, have the potential to cause accidents. Therefore, even pavement markings that communicate with vehicles will lead to fewer accidents. Road markings and lane detection can enable vehicles to stay in their lanes rather than drift, due to driver distraction or poor visibility, into other lanes and potentially cause accidents. Changing lanes is safer when there is sufficient space and other vehicles are aware of the movement.
Consider a stop sign. When vehicles miss a stop sign, they may crash into a car that had the right of way. V2I technology can help eliminate this problem by either warning the driver or perhaps even taking over the controls and stopping the car altogether.
Another scenario is a driver missing a road sign indicating their desired exit. To not miss the exit, the driver abruptly brakes or changes lanes, leading to an accident. With smart signs connected to V2I, signs will always be visible to humans and machines, regardless of road condition. Improved readability will help drivers react more predictably and reasonably, enabling driverless vehicles to move appropriately and in a way that will not surprise other vehicles on the road.
Pedestrian and cyclist safety will also improve with V2I, proponents say. A ‘smart’ road junction can detect if someone is crossing. Vehicles approaching the junction will be alerted to the pedestrian crossing and react appropriately. Smartphones could also be looped into the V2I technology network so that pedestrians and cyclists could be alerted about traffic.
For V2I to go from concept to reality, however, governments will have to invest in updating infrastructure with digital technology. In the UK some motorways already feature stretches of ‘smart’ road.
According to the RAC, “many people are of the opinion that smart motorways are more dangerous than conventional motorways, because of the lack of a hard shoulder”.
However, roads agency Highways England has published statistics from data gathered since the first smart motorway opened in 2006 which it says show that journey reliability improved by 22% over that time, and personal injury accidents have been reduced by more than half.
V2I may have a long road to travel before it becomes commonplace. But the signs are there that it will become part of our lives at some point.