I have long taken the position that a five-nines autonomous vehicular (AV) ecosystem is a two-way street (pun intended) and smart vehicles need smart roads.
That can be accomplished in a number of ways, but, however it is done, it is absolutely critical to any kind of fully autonomous system, IMHO. The only way I might be persuaded take that back is if we can deliver a 100 percent driverless platform as a ubiquitous, fully automated transportation system. Then roads can, probably, be left out of the equation. However, I really do not see that happening any time soon.
Presently, AV technology consists, primarily, of sensors – both on the vehicle and in the environment. The number, type, and sophistication of sensors boggles the mind; however, they all have the same thing in common – they simply sense. They are designed to do that and they do it well. The missing “man” is real-time, two-way communications. If roads were integrated with sensors and wireless transceivers, this would be a slam-dunk.
Some basic wireless one-way and two-way communications do exist. So to say there are none is not a fair statement. However, they are simple and narrow in function. They involve easy to implement communications such as those between vehicles and traffic signals, or parking meters and work with a limited number of parameters. These use subsystems already in place (cellular, Wi-Fi).
For a long time, it was believed that as dedicated, short-range communications (DSRC), an IEEE backed standard, would become the de facto vehicle to everything (V2X) commo net. However, recently, cellular vehicle to everything (C-V2X), pushed by special interests (telecos and some OEMs), has emerged and is challenging DSRC’s position. There is now competition backed by the particular interests of each technology. However, whichever one, (I am betting on both) prevails, it still cannot compensate for the lack of active, interconnected surface intelligence.
There is, however, some movement in smart roads beginning to emerge. Granted it is a monumental undertaking to make all road smart, but it is an undertaking that MUST, eventually, be tackled.
Recently, a startup company called Integrated Roadways has decided to take this on. They point to the fact that nearly half of all roadways in the United States are in need of investment – from resurfacing to replacing. This is a huge cost for public agencies, which are constantly asserting their inability to pay, let alone invest in tech-infused roads to improve the driving experience.
However, there may be a silver lining on the horizon.
Integrated Roadways believes it has a solution, in the form of commercial technology embedded inside public infrastructure which can be monetized to pay for itself.
Coming down the road (pun intended) are the next generations of wireless interconnect (Internet of Everything/Everyone – IoX, 5G, the Edge). This presents a tremendous opportunity to collect and analyze data (big data, if you will). If one thinks about it, it could, potentially, be one of the biggest RoI tickets coming down the “road.” Integrated Roadways’ belief is that data generated from all parts of a smart infrastructure could be monetized to pay for public services and take the increasing burden off the taxpayer, allowing for major infrastructure upgrades, both on and off the road.
Making streets smart will be challenging, especially considering all the entities involved. But I have to believe the amount of money involved will incentivize just about all of them. If I remember correctly, that was initially a concern in laying out a fiber infrastructure. Yet, slowly but surely, it has happened.
Making roadways smart is not that big a technological challenge. Installing wireless sensors during repaving, or building them into down precast pavement is the easy part. Literally, all of them can be commercial off-the-shelf components (COTS). The difficulty lies with such things as power, RF permeability, environmental challenges (impact from the various types of traffic), security, wireless network integration, durability, weather, and more. These are formidable.
Integrated Roadways has come up with a basic concept. And has one test bed out there. Sensors, processors, antenna and other technology, are housed in a cylinder inside the slab itself while a fiber optic strain mesh, laminated to the slab’s reinforcement, acts as a trackpad able to identify vehicle tire positions. Routers inside the slabs then connect to slab neighbors and send information to data centers alongside the roadway.
There is much more to this and many more possible vectors, but one gets the picture.
As far as the costs go, Integrated Roadways says the cost of its smart slabs averages about $4 million per lane, per mile. America’s current national rate is about $2 million per lane, per mile for a comparable concrete pavement. According to them, in the past 15 years, the cost of concrete paving has doubled and is projected to double again over the next 15 years, while the cost of precast paving has fallen 90 percent. Therefore, the cost differential is expected to disappear over the next few years.
And, of course, the bottom line to all this is that the data provided by smart roads (not just traffic, but imagine the possibilities of all kinds of data being sniffed from smart vehicles, including occupant activities, number of riders, destination, etc.), is marketable.
While this is just a fundamental concept, with limited data based on one technology, the potential to develop verticals is staggering. The benefit to any number of vectors, safety, efficiency, costs, not to mention RoI, is also significant. If we start on this now and integrate it into the evolution of this infrastructure, it will offer so many more opportunities, as well as benefits, to the entire smart “X” ecosystem. Is it challenging? Of course. But so was flying.