Potholes and roadway decay, it’s messy and dangerous, among other infrastructure crumblings.
There are emerging discussions that perhaps Congress and the White House might agree to a rather significant spend on America’s infrastructure. Some say it could be on the order of $2 trillion potentially allocated. Whether or not you favor such an expenditure, most would likely agree that our infrastructure does seem to be progressively crumbling, as evidenced by everything from dams that break without apparent warning to a plethora of tire-bashing potholes permeating our roadways from coast-to-coast.
According to the most recent Report Card on our infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), we all need to be seemingly ashamed of what we’ve allowed our country to become since the United States infrastructure earned a paltry and embarrassing D+ grade.
Just like a report card at school that covers various areas such as how you did in literature, math, history, and the like, the ASCE grades the infrastructure in sixteen notable categories. Sadly, we got a C+ for our bridges, ports, and waste handling, and primarily D’s for the rest of the categories, including a solid D for our roads and a D- for transit. Ouch, seems like we need to be kept after-school for some remedial work.
Meanwhile, if the proposed spending of perhaps $2 trillion dollars catches your breath, you’d better sit down, because the ASCE claims that we actually need to spend $4.5 trillion, doing so by the year 2025. You might consider the $2 trillion proposal a kind of part-way deposit and investment, which can be a starter, but it needs to be presumably amplified quite a bit over the next five years or so.
Without these investments, it is predicted that our infrastructure will continue to degrade, fall apart, likely causing lives to be lost, and lead to a slew of calamities that will leave us all shaken and regretful that we didn’t take action beforehand to avoid the onslaught of our own infrastructure injuring and killing us.
In the midst of all this, one question that needs to be asked involves this: What about autonomous driverless cars?
Self-Driving Driverless Cars And The Infrastructure
Many pundits focused on the spending for America’s infrastructure are at times not taking into account the hoped-for emergence of autonomous cars. Regrettably and inexcusably so.
I assert that the infrastructure investments being contemplated need to ensure that there is a piece-of-the-pie for self-driving driverless cars.
At least make sure that the autonomous car topic gets onto the table of deliberations about where and in what ways to maintain, fix, upgrade, and enhance our infrastructure, particularly the transportation side of things. Anyone not including driverless car aspects into any infrastructure considerations would be short-sighted in their views. It would ultimately be a gut-wrenching omission that after-the-fact would be realized as having been a glaring and disconcerting loss of opportunity, potentially delaying the advent of driverless cars or inadvertently raising the cost and effort to bring them to fruition.
That being said, there are overly rabid fans of self-driving cars that should be cautioned about unreasonably asking that the entire country be retrofitted to somehow accommodate autonomous cars. I am decidedly not a devotee of those that think our transportation approach must be radically altered simply to enable driverless cars to succeed.
As an example, some idealists want to convert all of our roadways into driverless-only streets and highways, banning any human driving, taking away people’s drivers licenses, and otherwise becoming their version of a Utopian AI-driven world. This flies in the face of today’s reality.
Face it, there are over 250 million conventional cars in the United States and those aren’t going to be mothballed overnight, nor will driverless cars appear overnight and become pervasive instantaneously. Bottom-line is that we are going to have both human-driven cars and self-driving cars mixing together on our roadways for a long time to come. You can dream about a future that might be many decades away, maybe, but let’s deal with transportation elements now that can aid the foreseeable and progressive advent of autonomous cars.
Traditional And Newer Digital Infrastructure Elements
It is instructive to divide the car-oriented infrastructure elements into two groupings, consisting of the traditional aspects and the newer digital aspects. Each of those groupings can be directly helpful to the emergence of driverless cars. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive or working at odds with each other.
For example, let’s consider potholes. We all hate them, except for maybe tire stores and auto repair shops.
Fixing our nation’s potholes would be considered a traditionalist infrastructure kind of action. Getting rid of those teeth-jarring and axel-bending potholes is good for conventional cars, and fortunately turns out to be good for self-driving cars too (there’s no magic imbued in autonomous cars that allows them to hover above those dastardly potholes and avoid them, at least not yet). You might say that dealing with potholes is a twofer.
There are some traditionalist aspects that can be amped-up to more favorably aid driverless cars.
Ponder for a moment lane markings.
The lane markings on the roads that indicate where a lane boundary is, those are obviously helpful to human drivers, and likewise tend to be used by autonomous cars, based on the camera sensory devices and the use of AI to interpret the visual scene ahead. One approach involves using conventional paints and dumb-markers to freshen and highlight the roadway path, while an enhanced approach would use specialized paints and smart-markers, providing a potent digital enablement.
What do I mean by digital enablement? The driverless car could use the cameras to visually process what it sees, and in addition, would be able to pick-up electronic communications that the digitally enabled street-oriented capabilities might provide. Human drivers might not be able to leverage the digital beaconing, yet they still would be able to better see the lanes due to the refreshing of the markings, and once again you are getting a kind of twofer.
There are digital infrastructure add-ons that would be perhaps less valued by human drivers, including for example the use of edge computing devices, placed along highways and roadways, enabling capabilities for V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle), V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure), V2P (vehicle-to-pedestrian), and other V2X (X meaning all-encompassing) connecting with self-driving cars. These kinds of electronic communications would contribute toward the safety of driverless cars, along with their efficient and effective usage.
Interestingly, human drivers could indeed benefit from those otherwise automation-focused improvements. A human driver could receive electronic alerts and communiques to their semi-autonomous car, of which the human might utilize during the driving task. Let’s though be careful about how this might be implemented, since the result could be a barrage of distractions that cause the human driver to get into car accidents, producing adverse undesirable consequences rather than being helpful.
Another looming question is the role of Electrical Vehicles (EV) and our transportation infrastructure.
Generally, autonomous cars are likely to be EV-based, partially due to the enormous electrical cravings of the onboard sensors and computers. A driverless car does not need to be an EV, but it makes life easier since an EV is built with electrical power as a core capability that dovetails into the needs of self-driving cars.
As such, one wonders, should our country-wide infrastructure be outfitted with charging stations, doing so to accommodate the assumed growth in EV usage. Right now, the EV adoption has been sluggish partly due to the consumer complaint that unlike having gasoline stations on every corner, trying to find a place to charge your EV is currently problematic. If the U.S. infrastructure made an investment in charging stations, this qualm might be lessened or overcome.
It’s another potential twofer, encouraging people to switch over to EVs, and simultaneously potentially benefiting the emergence of autonomous cars that are EV-based.
Per my earlier remark, whether you believe in spending on infrastructure or not, and whether the potential of $2 trillion dollars makes your eyes bug out, nonetheless I assert that whatever we all opt to do about our crumbling infrastructure, let’s make sure to provide attention to autonomous cars, especially since there are many prudent ways to get a twofer out of our hefty infrastructure investments.