Driverless Highways: Creating Cars that Talk to the Roads

Driverless Highways: Creating Cars that Talk to the Roads


Speaking at "Mobility Day" in Shanghai

Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on the “Future of Mobility” in Shanghai, China. The event was produced by the very forward thinking people at Lanxess, a German-based chemical company that broke ground the day before on a new facility to expand its already significant base of operation in Shanghai.

As the world’s leading producer of synthetic rubber for the automotive industry, Lanxess is very interested in positioning itself at the forefront of our mobile future. One of the biggest trends for this industry is the push to make vehicles driverless.

While most people have been focusing on the driverless technology inside the vehicle itself, where noteworthy accomplishments seen to be happening on a daily basis, the shift will also cause huge changes to occur in area’s like insurance, public policy, parking, delivery services, and especially highway engineering.

Even though the art of road building has been continually improving since the Roman Empire first decided to make roads a permanent part of their infrastructure, highways today remain as little more than dumb surfaces with virtually no data flowing between the vehicles and the road itself. That is about to change, and here’s why.

China’s Car Market

The number of cars in the U.S. works out to 800 for every thousand people. In Japan, that number is 600 per thousand and South Korea, slightly under 400. But in Shanghai, the car per person ratio currently stands at 169 cars per 1,000.

While the people of China own a smaller percentage of vehicles than other countries, their wealth is increasing rapidly and more cars will soon add additional layers of complication to their already crowded streets.

But the Chinese government is acutely aware of this problem. Restrictions are already in place to limit the number of vehicles that can be licensed inside some of the larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

So where does that leave people who wish to become part of this emerging mobile lifestyle? Going driverless may hold some exciting new options.

Going Driverless

Driverless technology will initially require a driver, and it will creep into everyday use much as airbags did. First as an expensive option for luxury cars, but eventually it will become a safety feature required by governments.

The greatest benefits of this kind of automation won’t be realized until the driver’s hands are off the wheel. With over 2 million people involved in car accidents every year in the U.S., it won’t take long for legislators to be convinced that driverless cars are a safer option.

The privilege of driving is about to be redefined.

Many aspects of driverless cars are overwhelmingly positive, such as saving lives and giving additional years of mobility to the aging senior population. However, it will also be a very disruptive technology.

Driverless technologies will be blamed for destroying countless jobs – truck drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers, limo drivers, traffic cops, parking lot attendants, ambulance drivers, first responders, doctors, and nurses will all see their careers impacted.

If done correctly, driverless vehicles may even deal a fatal blow to the auto insurance industry.

Image of what a driverless car “sees”

Creating Cars that Talk to the Roads

As cars become equipped with driverless technology, important things begin to happen. To compensate for the loss of a driver, vehicles will need to become more aware of their surroundings.

Working with cameras and other sensors, an onboard computer will log information over 10 times per second from short-range transmitters on surrounding road conditions, including where other cars are and what they are doing. This constant flow of data will give the vehicle a rudimentary sense of awareness.

With this continuous flow of sensory information, vehicles will begin to form a symbiotic relationship of sorts with its environment, a relationship that is far different than the current human to road relationship, which is largely emotion-based.

For this reason, it would be foolish of highway engineers to ignore the opportunity to build roads as intelligent as the vehicles that drive on them.

An intelligent car coupled with an intelligent road is a powerful force. Together they will accelerate our mobility as a society, and do it in a stellar fashion.

  • Lane Compression – Highway lanes need only be as wide as the vehicles themselves. Narrow vehicles can be in very narrow lanes, and with varying sizes and shapes of vehicles, an intelligent road system will have the ability to shift lane widths on the fly.
  • Distance Compression – With machine-controlled vehicles, the distance between bumpers can be compressed from multiple car lengths to mere inches.
  • Time Compression – Smart roads are fast roads. Travel speed will be increased at the same time safety is improved.

In the driverless era, intelligent highways will be able to accommodate 10-20 times as many vehicles as they do today. Counter to traditional thinking about vehicle safety, the higher the speeds, the fewer the number of vehicle on the roads at any given moment.

As we compress the time and space requirements of every vehicle, we will be able to achieve a far higher yield of passenger benefits per square foot of road resources.

In addition to the benefits passengers receive, the road itself can greatly benefit from this technology. With cars constantly monitoring road conditions, the road itself can call for its own repair.

Rather than waiting until a road becomes a serious hazard, as is currently the case, and repair crews disrupt traffic for hours, days, or longer, micro repairs can happen on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. High-speed coatings and surface repairs can even be developed for in-traffic application.

Even treacherous snow and ice conditions will have little effect if deicer is applied immediately and traffic is relentless enough.

On-Demand Transportation

In the same way people hail a cab, people in the future will use their mobile devices to summon a driverless vehicle whenever they need to travel. Without the cost of drivers, this type of transportation will be infinitely more affordable, for most, less than the cost of vehicle ownership.

So rather than buying a car, and taking on all the liabilities of maintenance, upkeep, and insurance, consumers will simply purchase transportation whenever they need it.

As the transition is made to driverless vehicles, the number of vehicles sold to individuals will begin to decline, and a growing percentage will be to large fleet operators offering the new “transportation on-demand” service.

In response to declining car sales, the automotive industry will adopt a “selling transportation” model where, rather than “selling” cars to fleet operators, car companies will begin charging a nominal per-mile charge.

Fleet operators will love the arrangement because there will be no large up-front purchase price, but instead, only a small monthly fee based on the number of miles driven.

As the sale of cars begins to decline, the automobile industry will start to design and manufacture cars capable of driving over 1 million miles. By collecting a small per-mile fee over the life of a million-mile car, automobile manufacturers will have the potential of earning ten times as much, per vehicle, as they do today.

This will mean all car parts and components will need to be designed more durable, longer-lasting than ever before. Both quality and design standards will be pushed to new levels.

Focus on the “rider”

Shifting from the “Driver” Experience to the “Rider” Experience

Car designers today spend the vast majority of their time trying to optimize the driver experience. After all, the driver is the most important part of the ownership equation. But that will soon change.

In the “driverless era,” the focus will shift to passenger comfort and passenger experience. Fancy dashboards displaying dazzling amounts of information will become a thing of the past as riders obsess more over the on-board movie, music, and massage interfaces.

Some cars operations will be more conversational in nature, pairing socially compatible riders in a way to maximize the conversational benefits of like-minded individuals. Others will stress the benefits of alone-time, offering a peaceful zen-like experience for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of work-life.

The China Advantage

China doesn’t need more cars, it needs more transportation.

They already understand time compression, using high-speed rail systems to reduce the travel time on the Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Railway from 70 to 30 minutes.

Similarly, the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway that opened in June 2011 reduced the 819 mile distance between the two largest cities in China to under 5 hours.

With the coming turnover in infrastructure, more in the next 20 years than in all human history, countries that can make decisions fastest, and perform quickest, will have a huge advantage.

China has demonstrated time and again that they can make things happen quickly.

Final Thoughts

We are all terminally human, and human fallibility lies at the heart of the transportation conundrum. We all love to drive, but humans are the inconsistent variable in this demanding area of responsibility. Driving requires constant vigilance, constant alertness, and constant involvement.

However, once we take the driver out of the equation we solve far more problems than the wasted time and energy needed to pilot the vehicle.

But vehicle design is only part of the equation. Without reimagining the way we design and maintain highways, driverless cars will only achieve a fraction of their true potential.

Combining smart cars (driverless) with smart highways (also driverless), we can begin to envision a far brighter future ahead.

In the end, we will be driving towards a far safer and more resilient society, but we still have a few bumpy roads to go down in the mean time.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything




6 Responses

  1. Tom,

    Great article. So many threads to consider, not the least of which is the societal change that kicked car production into high gear to begin with; American wanderlust in the 50’s.

    It would seem to me that smart highways would be facilitated by a sufficient density of smart vehicles without the need for any additional technology on the roadways. If smart vehicles communicated with a hub system, arrayed and managed much like air traffic control systems are today (i.e., surface traffic control systems (STCS)), all of the benefits mentioned could be implemented.

    The STCS would overlay the proximity data with other systems, such as weather and mapping. This synthesized information would then be made available to the vehicles, with or without a driver, as well as other systems. It could be a subscription service for consumers such as emergency vehicle dispatchers, news outlets and the aforementioned road repair crews.

    While the driverless car capability will be invaluable, the proximity data alone would be valuable in its own right. Knowing how many vehicles are on the road and their location would enable near-term advances, such as heads up navigation systems, early warning system and traffic flow analysis. Just a few vehicles equipped in an area could map all of the vehicles on the road, even those not equipped. Equipping law enforcement, emergency and a handful of commercial fleet vehicles with proximity sensor systems would generate a complete and cross-referenced database of vehicle locations.

    One interesting aspect is that law enforcement could ‘see’ speeding vehicles and accident clusters from a distance. They would still have to get to the location to stop speeders or handle an accident, but the timeliness and precision of response would save time and lives.

    Thanks again Tom for another thought provoking piece.


  2. When I was a boy, growing up in Iowa, some of the farms had tractors. But not all. It took a while for the tractor to catch on. It was a tough sell. Farmers had to wait for their plow horses to die.

    Change can be slow, even in the face of inevitable.

  3. admin


    After WWII a number of restrictions were placed on the Germans, two of which prevented automobile companies from working on some of their most advanced technologies – power steering and automatic transmissions. While the restrictions only lasted a few years, companies like Mercedes were still behind the curve on these technologies 50 years later.

    All of the car companies understand the lead time necessary to add a major new technology, and adding a driverless cars feature would be one of the biggest advancements ever in all car history. That’s why all of them have teams working on it now. They don’t want to be behind the curve when the others start adding it.

    Driverless features will be added in phases. One of the earliest, and seemingly most popular, will be the auto-valet button where you simply tell your car to go park itself. Once you want your car back, much like the Lone Ranger whistling for his horse, you simply hit another button and the car will return for pickup.

    Another step will be the “rush hour commute” button where drivers will simply turn over control of the car during the morning and afternoon drive times.

    Auto manufacturers want this to work in a big way because it will expand their markets. Aging seniors will feel more mobile. People with bad driving records, young teens (restriction will still apply), foreign and handicap people, as well as people with terrible credit will all have more access to mobility.

    Yes, there will be accidents. And yes, there will be setbacks. But I don’t foresee any permanent show-stoppers. In fact, I see this as the next countries-competing-against-countries competition with a race to see who can build the most automated system first.


  4. Ken Garman

    While the technology to do this excites me, the idea of not being able to drive myself actually scares me. Plain and simple, I love to drive, even in rush hour. It is a challenge and I live for challenge.
    I think most Type-A personalities, and anyone who likes to have control, even if the only area they have control in their lives is to control a vehicle.

    I also see some areas where I don’t see it to be feasible at all:

    First, lots of cities are struggling to stay afloat financially. Perhaps this is not the case in cities like New York or Chicago, but most other cities put road repair on a back burner until absolutely necessary.

    Second, who is going to pay for the roads and highways that connect cities? Oh wait! I forgot their is a never ending supply of money from tax payers. Never mind, I guess this one isn’t really an issue in light of that.

    Third, much of America is still rural, or smaller cities and towns, many still have only dirt roads, and no road crews to build/fix them anyway. Can you picture a farm truck that needs to pick up fence posts at a mill in a city, and then taking them back and dropping each individual post where it goes, all in a vehicle that drives itself?

    What about people who enjoy driving off-road. I guess we could make a law to limit their freedom.

    While this technology will be possible soon, it’s full adoption will not come until these and other pertinent questions have been addressed.

  5. admin


    Some great questions here. There will probably always be some manually driven vehicles, but it will be a rapidly declining number over time.

    Many of us love to drive, but couples with 2 cars will see if they can get by with one. Young people who reach driving age, and get hit with outrageous insurance bills, will have an easy time easing into the carless lifestyle.

    On-demand transportation tends to break down in rural communities. That’ll be a tougher one to solve.

    I can see major thoroughfares going to driverless only lanes, and eventually, completely driverless. Car with human drivers may get relegated to side streets.

    But, as with everything I write about, I could be wrong.


  6. There are roughly 100 American deaths from auto accidents a day. Assume that driverless cars have a 10,000% better record. I have a feeling that, for a long time, news outlets will be interupting each day with “FLASH! Driverless car kills mother of three!”. I truly hope not, because I am in my mid-50s and hope to have a driverless car when I am too old to drive, but I fear this will hold things up.

Leave a comment