Insights

The Road Ahead: The Future of Autonomous Vehicles and the Built Environment

Autonomous features such as adaptive lane control and crash avoidance can be found in many of today’s vehicles. With full support from the U.S. Department of Transportation, autonomous vehicle technologies are quickly advancing and moving toward an even higher level of automation. Now, highly automated vehicles (HAVs) that can function with little to no assistance from a human operator have broken the horizon and are on the rise. 

With the emergence of HAVs, transportation planners and engineers are preparing for the future of our built environment. As we evaluate vehicle capabilities and infrastructure needs, consideration should be given to the impact on our most vulnerable road users (VRUs), such as bicyclists, children, seniors and people with disabilities. 

While the conversation is evolving, here are some ways VRUs are being integrated into the discussion on HAVs and infrastructure needs.  

Infrastructure Needs for HAVs

We know that HAVs are going to impact infrastructure. How our infrastructure may change is still vague. It is speculated that HAVs will need fewer physical cues that human drivers rely on to navigate the roadway system. We can also expect to see changes in parking facilities, installation of vehicle charging stations, and the introduction of designated drop-off and pick-up areas. Some researchers have even predicted that there will no longer be a need for traffic signals because vehicles will have the ability to navigate intersections without coming to a complete stop.

When we consider the likely implementation areas for HAVs, it is important to remember that these also can be pedestrian-rich environments. In addition to the vehicles’ needs, the infrastructure needs of pedestrians also need to be considered. 

Integrating Pedestrian Expectations

Pedestrians are conditioned to behave a certain way and expect specific responses from vehicles and the infrastructure, such as enhanced applications at uncontrolled crossing locations, walking signals at intersections, and vehicles yielding to pedestrians crossing the road through eye contact or gestures to and from the drivers. Understanding these behavioral expectations is important when planning for the future of our built environment. 

VRUs often have physical or cognitive dependencies on infrastructure. To accommodate this, we need to understand how children are taught to cross the road and how visually-, physically- and cognitively-impaired pedestrians navigate roadways and intersections. As infrastructure is designed to accommodate HAVs it will be important to ensure that it is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even though vehicles may no longer need certain components of our current infrastructure, they may still be required for pedestrian accessibility and to safely cross the road.

Driving Toward the Future

We are now faced with questions about what the implementation of HAVs mean for the built environment and how it impacts pedestrian safety. While HAVs create the opportunity to improve safety for all users, depending solely on that technology may not be enough. By applying what we know about design, education and safety, and prioritizing VRUs, we can help ensure that they are represented in the conversation. Our efforts can create a familiar environment and provide the education needed to supplement the technology and safeguard VRUs for the “what ifs” that can occur when technology fails. 

While transportation planners and roadway engineers inform autonomous vehicle technology, we can work toward Vision Zero goals and design infrastructure that increases pedestrian safety regardless of vehicle autonomy. We can continue facilitating discussions with HAV implementors through platforms such as the Transportation Research Board and the Automated Vehicle Symposium. For more information on what’s to come on HAV technology, check out the U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest publication, Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0.

Amy Rosepiler, PE, Director, Columbus Roadway Design Section
Amy Rosepiler, PE
Director, Columbus Roadway Design Section

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