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Self-driving cars are coming, but US roads aren't ready for the change

Self-driving cars are coming, but US roads aren't ready for the change
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The future of transportation is right around the corner. Cutting-edge technological advances have the potential to completely change personal mobility as we know it. So, it is no surprise that automated vehicles have captured the nation’s attention.

A driverless car is a marvel of modern engineering and science. But how many of us, who may be first in line to purchase an automated vehicle, has given any thought to one critical question — is the infrastructure ready for these cars?

Right now, the short answer is not many. Our roads need improvement to safely support this newest technology and it will take federal, state and local governments, automakers, and material manufacturers working together to help create the roads of the future.

In fact, transportation experts indicate the change needed to properly support automated vehicles is akin to the change took place when cars replaced horse and buggies in the early 20th Century. This means there needs to be support for autonomous cars across the entire automotive ecosystem and geopolitical spectrum, including uniform standards and regulations across state lines.

According to the National League of Cities’ research, only six percent of the U.S.’s largest cities’ transportation plans include any language on the potential effect of driverless technology on mobility.  This will need to change to make fully autonomous vehicles feasible. We must upgrade our road markings so the next generation of vehicles can safely transport us. Simple fixes, such as upgrading lane lines and traffic signs, will not only help human drivers but also help automated vehicles to "see" the road.

While signage and road markings are just two components of a holistic solution, we need to ensure our infrastructure can support this technology.

One example of how this change can and should be made was illustrated by a cooperation between my organization, 3M, and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The team announced that MDOT is using 3M connected vehicle technologies along more than three miles of an I-75 construction zone to begin exploring how vehicles react to a work zone environment.

The I-75 modernization project will position Michigan as one of the first states to test connected vehicle infrastructure at this level of scale, and begin to provide guidance on how to bring these cars to the road in a safe way for both the driver and the road worker.

As vehicles become increasingly automated and connected, existing road infrastructure will need to be updated to help ensure safety and reliability. Enhanced signs, road markings, temporary traffic controls and vehicle identification systems need to be designed and installed, offering redundancies — extra backup solutions in case one component, such as GPS, fails — to pave the way for the data-driven environment of the cars and roadways of tomorrow. 

And we are only at the beginning. Our evolution into the world of self-driving vehicles will almost certainly accelerate. Last year, Goldman Sachs projected the market for advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles would grow from about $3 billion in 2015 to $96 billion in 2025 and $290 billion in 2035.

In addition to the financial stakes, there is the human factor as well. A recent study by Strategy Analytics estimates that nearly 585,000 lives between 2035 and 2050 could be saved by the implementation of driverless vehicles. 

The market demand means changes will happen. But to be successful and ensure safety for those involved, while achieving economical yet robust infrastructure solutions, the ecosystem of automakers, material manufacturers, suppliers and governmental agencies need to all work together to be on the same page.

Everyone understands the need for cooperation, but more needs to be done to create the necessary redundancies to bring autonomous vehicles to the roads safely. The process will take time, but with everyone working together we can achieve a new national infrastructure to ensure we can safely enjoy our time on the road while letting our automated vehicle do the driving for us.

Dan Veoni is Global Government Affairs Manager at 3M, global science company with a team of scientists and researchers that creates breakthroughs.