Michael Morscher

December 8, 2017

Paving the Way for Infrastructure Evolution

Everyone knows America's infrastructure desperately needs improvement. Most people know that America's infrastructure as it stands is insufficient to support autonomous vehicles. Those who don't know would probably be able to guess correctly.

But, in this plight lies an opportunity: the opportunity to be proactive, making the necessary investments in infrastructure improvement and doing so with self-driving cars explicitly in mind. We have seen light- and heavy-rail transit systems across the country have their service deteriorate as their infrastructure deteriorates. Taking the MTA and MBTA for example, what becomes clear is that the cost to repair infrastructure skyrockets the longer it is neglected. Public perception of this matter is understanding, since rails and signaling systems are something tangible. Yet even though people are fed up with poor road conditions, there is a tendency for public agencies to do cheap and lazy repairs like pouring tar in potholes and hoping it works out, and many accept this as "good enough". But this mindset is not good enough. Resolution of underlying problems and preemptively fixing anticipated problems is the only way infrastructure will be able to be maintained for AVs, and since they will end up making roads more like integrated rail networks with signal systems, a lesson can be learned as to when this investment ought to be made.

There are persistent (albeit ineffectual) rumblings from both sides of the political aisle about infrastructure improvement, and this fall we witnessed bipartisan agreement on regulating self-driving cars. Rather than looking to historical inaction, there is reason to remain optimistic that legislators will recognize this need and act responsibly.

So, let's recap the considerations that will need to be addressed.

In industry, there are three lines of thought regarding the infrastructure changes needed to accommodate self-driving cars. In truth, it is almost surely a combination of the three that will be most socially beneficial:

  • New infrastructure. The most expensive of the three categories, but unavoidable to make the necessary technological adaptations.
  • Rethinking existing infrastructure. Not only repairing, but repurposing.
  • Removing infrastructure. It is no one's first instinct, but we need to be proactive about current infrastructure that is sliding into obsolescence in order to be ready for the AV revolution.

From my research I believe rethinking existing infrastructure holds the most promise, both in keeping costs as low as possible and facing the fewest barriers to progress. Moreover, it is the most reasonable place to start while we still have an overwhelming majority of traditional cars in operation.

Within this, the three overarching motivations seem to be:

  • Redesigning cities around the pedestrian
  • Redesigning highways around the self-driving car
  • Redesigning roads around both

In each, there are conflicting priorities and debate regarding changes to be made. The least debate probably lies in the highway--there really is no particular reason to make it a pedestrian paradise. If we can accept this as a fact, then it shouldn't be a stretch to recognize that there's no particular reason to optimize cities for cars rather than pedestrians. Urban roads will inevitably require compromise, but the compromise is probably easier to attain outside of cities as a starting point.

At the end of the day, wouldn't it be nice to live and work in a city that looks like this?

‍The changing landscape of city streets as a result of self-driving cars.

There just might be infinitely many factors to consider when redesigning what the world we live in looks like. It can be confusing and intimidating. And at the end of the day, the people who will be tasked with making these decisions are not the people who are experts in the field. I'm certainly no expert myself, but to reduce the management of the potential impact of self-driving cars to as simple an initiative as possible I say: keep it realistic and responsible.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2017/08/15/what-crumbling-faster-infrastructure-political-will-act/IM6UROXdy54u9H9XNa5MaM/story.html https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/13/16453926/self-driving-car-us-cities-uber-traffic-collision https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/24/public-transits-summer-of-hell https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/ https://www.wired.com/story/congress-self-driving-car-law-bill/ https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-01-27/both-parties-can-agree-on-infrastructure-sort-of nacto.org/2017/10/31/blueprint-for-autonomous-urbanism
Michael Morscher
2019
Engineering Psychology and Computer Science
https://sites.tufts.edu/cars/