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Scholar: Road Improvements Essential to Pave Way for Driverless Cars

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Google driverless car on freeway in 2012

The photographer writes: “A friend just shared a pic of Google’s driverless car on the freeway. It’s coming!”

Responding to news that California Governor Jerry Brown is likely to approve that state’s proposed bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Clifford Winston, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, writes in The Wall Street Journal that revamping highways to accommodate driverless cars is a better solution:

The driverless car represents one of the most amazing breakthroughs in safety and quality of life in recent history. Instead of focusing on enormously expensive high-speed rail as our transportation future, the government would do well to stop hindering driverless cars by its obsolete thinking about our nation’s roads.

Winston writes that it is already possible to imagine a world of driverless cars, in which people would know exactly how long it would take to arrive at their destination, without concerns about rush hour traffic, vacation congestion, distracted or impaired drivers, speed traps, or accidents, because the technology can “drastically reduce highway fatalities by preventing collisions.” While seated in driverless cars, people will also be able to text while driving with no safety implications, he notes.

Although automakers have been passionate about consistently creating technological improvements in cars, driverless cars will achieve little of their potential, he writes, unless the U.S. reimagines the way it designs and maintains its highways.

Dug Begley writes for The Press-Enterprise blog Inland Transportation that Southern California is one place where highways need improving. Each of the major routes in that region’s inland area is “pocked with potholes” in some places, he notes, as Caltrans officials have been saying for years that they cannot keep up with the needed maintenance.

Winston writes that about one-third of the highways in the U.S. are in “poor or mediocre” condition, which is hard on vehicles and costs motorists billions of dollars annually. Potholes could defeat the purposes of driverless cars, as it would be impossible for such cars to avoid the potholes, or if they did, they would disrupt the flow of traffic. He suggests illuminated lane dividers to increase the number of lanes, allowing driverless cars (which do not need conventional wide highway lanes) to reduce congestion and delays.

Winston also suggests that highways be reconfigured with dedicated — but fewer — lanes for trucks, which require thicker road surfaces; and with more lanes with thinner road surfaces for cars, which would “save taxpayers a bundle.” Such a road system would work well with driverless cars so they would not have to distinguish between cars and trucks and adjust speeds and positions accordingly, he writes.

At least California is moving in that direction, according to Begley, who writes that the Southern California Association of Governments is already talking about truck lanes along Interstate 710, Highway 60, and Interstate 15.

Although redesigning the nation’s highways to accommodate driverless cars would be expensive, Winston suggests another option:

One promising approach that would not require taxpayer funds would be to turn to innovative private highway companies, which have leased the Indiana toll road, Chicago Skyway and Dulles Greenway. By working closely with auto makers, they could significantly shorten the time that motorists must wait before they fully realize the benefits of driverless technology.

Image by mariachily (Maria Ly), used under its Creative Commons license.

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