Smart Cars? How about Smart Roads?


Traffic lights showing green arrows.
Photo by Alex King on Unsplash

When it comes to smart cars, there seems to be a lot of talk but less progress. We are constantly learning more about how smart cars will work and how they will change driving forever, but we have yet to see them become a staple of everyday driving life. That might be in part because while companies are ironing out the vehicle technology, they still have to reckon with the existing infrastructure.


In an article for CNN Business, Matt McFarland covers the increasing interest in smart roads on the behalf of automated tech companies like Waymo, Cruise, and Aurora. Several of these companies are getting serious about the prospect of smart roads. At least in part, this seems to be driven by necessity.


"... in a recent interview with CNN Business, [Waymo Systems Engineer] Waydo spoke of the challenges and limits of self-driving cars, like identifying puddles, or seeing clearly when the sun is low on the horizon."

As drivers, we have had to learn to adapt to the unpredictability of the road. The unpredictable doesn't just come from other drivers, it can come in the form of patches of ice on the road, of malfunctioning traffic lights, or of construction vehicles. At the same time, while autonomous technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, the infrastructure it has to contend with remains stagnant, and in some areas in dire need of updating. How will smart cars deal with cracks in pavement, or rough roads that require more delicate driving?


Even those aspects of the infrastructure that are not unpredictable, like changing traffic lights (a staple of driving) can be difficult for smart cars to process.


"Roads, signs and traffic lights were designed when governments expected that only humans would drive cars. A bright green light may be the easiest way to tell a human it's safe to drive ahead, but a self-driving car may be better off if the information is messages over a radio or cellular network."

So what would smart roads look like? The inclusion of things like sensors and cameras along the roads and at intersections that would provide smart cars with better information with which to navigate.


While autonomous tech companies are excited and hopeful about the introduction of smart infrastructure, in part because it would speed up the timeline for smart cars, the idea has a fair share of detractors, too.


Many point to the potentially prohibitive costs of vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, and also point out that in order for such technology to be effective, it would need to cover huge areas. And that's just getting smart roads up and running. Said technology would also require maintenance, another cost to consider.


These conversations will likely continue for the next few years, as tech companies and consumers alike figure out what the future will look like and how smart technology will be integrated into our driving routine.


For more, check out the original article on CNN Business by Matt McFarland.