Robot-Only Roads Face Cost and Limited Benefits

Somewhere down the road, around the bend, and over the horizon, fully autonomous vehicles will be operating freely on highways and byways.

They will deliver goods and transport people and pets from Point A to Point B but will the robot-piloted vehicles force human drivers off the road, perhaps with a little help from regulators? Might this raise personal liberty issues as some people wish to continue driving themselves?

Industry experts and attorneys are already assessing and pondering this situation even as several of them tell TU-Automotive that truly autonomous vehicles that drive themselves with or without human supervision remain down the road several years. “There’s no ‘right’ to drive a car,” asserts attorney Gail Gottehrer, whose practice focuses on autonomous vehicles and automotive privacy laws. “In order to [drive a car] you must meet the requirements to obtain a driver’s license, which may come with restrictions, such as requiring you to wear your glasses while driving. Once licensed, you must comply with motor vehicle laws, and if you fail to do so, that license can be suspended or revoked. There’s also no ‘right’ to operate a certain type of vehicle on a specific road and road usage can also be subject to restrictions.”

Given that it will take years, or perhaps decades, before AVs are in the majority on roads, a self-driving vehicle mandate may be a long and gradual process before becoming the law of the land. Bryant Walker Smith is a law professor at the University of South Carolina who advises governments and companies on transport technologies. He notes that technological advances allowing for less expensive conversion kits to retrofit older vehicles to self-driving cars may smooth the transition away from human pilots, “making restrictions on human driving more palatable”. Smith adds: “Active safety systems are likely to get much better, to the point that they are effectively driving a vehicle even if the human driver believes otherwise.”

Highways dedicated to self-driving vehicles may not be that far in the future. The first such stretch of autonomous and connected highway is being developed in Michigan and will connect Detroit with Ann Arbor. Cavnue is working with several carmakers, autonomous mobility firms, researchers and investors to develop the so-called connected corridor. It promises to improve safety, congestion, and accessibility.

Renderings show dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles but the cost may be exorbitant to segregate AVs from human piloted ones on a massive, meaningful scale and it may not solve problems at either terminus of such a road system. “Creating a separate system of roads for AVs would be prohibitively expensive and there would still be access points where they mix with other vehicles,” asserts Michael Clamann, senior human factors engineer at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

Limited benefits

Clamann also said: “[AV-only roads] are definitely a good idea but they will be very difficult to implement. One of the biggest challenges for autonomous vehicles will be operating around human road users… this is what makes Level 4 vehicles an attractive solution.” The researcher also notes that different types of roads or areas may require human drivers or interaction even as AVs become more prevalent. There are many locations that will be too complicated for AVs even in the future. We may see this in areas that require human judgment, like gravel roads, airports, schools and hospitals. In areas that are less uncertain, like interstate highways, automated driving could be required. The ability for AVs to safely share road space and other areas with pedestrians will be key to the transition to more self-driving mobiles. Clamann adds: “We could see slow-moving AVs replacing human-driven vehicles in dense urban areas as a complement to other public transportation.”

Smith says there’s already a precedent for cars sharing the road with older technology vehicles. He sees AVs sharing the streets with other human-piloted modes of transportation for some time, not unlike how roads in his native state of Wisconsin accommodate the Amish population that still travels by horse and buggy. “Many roads are designed to accommodate them, with wider shoulders and without rumble strips. So, I tend to think most of our roads will accommodate a wide variety of users for a very long time.”

Some road-weary drivers look forward to the days of greater robotic driving assistance to help regulate the flow of traffic, improve safety and make commutes more relaxing and, perhaps, enjoyable. “I think certain robot only roads are a good idea,” asserted Michael Sherrod, the William M. Dickey entrepreneur-in-residence at Texas Christian University. “[Interstate] 35 in Texas should be robot-only, it’s one of the most dangerous roads in Texas, if not the country. It’s like the autobahn but with too many cars.”

The stretch of highway is a main north-south artery in Texas, connecting the heavily populated Dallas-Fort Worth metro area down to the capital of Austin and eventually the city of San Antonio. It is notorious for accidents including a 130-car pileup in February during a winter storm that killed half a dozen people. While he thinks it’s a good idea, Sherrod is not ready to fully cede control to an autonomous car just yet, although he wouldn’t mind a little help on a long-haul drive: “The self-driving part will be engaged on dangerous or highly trafficked roads… but, if they say you can’t drive anymore at all, I’d be upset. I love road trips!”

While automated driving is not a panacea, Smith said these safety and capacity benefits will help make a compelling economic case for AVs to the government and perhaps with individuals. As for personal freedoms, the law professor presented this argument: “You’re not entirely free if you’re unable to drive, if you’re stuck in congestion, if you’re inhaling exhaust in your house, or if you’re dead because a drunk driver hit you.”

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