Skip to main content
Start of main content

The connected, autonomous road ahead: Key challenges and opportunities for road operators

September 20, 2019

By Martin Thibault

Connected and autonomous vehicles have the power to change road-network operations in the future. How will you prepare?

It’s hard to check the news these days without seeing a story on a new autonomous vehicle (AV) project planned, launched, or underway. Montreal—my hometown—just launched its own AV shuttle pilot this summer, and Toronto has one planned for next year. Numerous AV shuttle pilots are running or planned across the United States this year, across all corners of the country.

Connected and autonomous vehicles have the power to change road-network operations in the future. As this trend continues to pick up steam, road agencies need to start thinking about how to prepare for the changes the new wave of vehicles will bring.

Connected vehicles—a quick overview

While most people tend to focus on the “autonomous” aspect of the smart mobility revolution, it’s the “connected” aspect that makes any of this possible.

Nowadays, vehicles can communicate multiple types of information between each other—called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V). They can also communicate with the infrastructure around them—vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I). Through these systems, drivers can access information from other vehicles or from road infrastructure, such as the speed limit, weather warnings, construction zones, sharp curve warnings, or a stopped vehicle in the road ahead.

The deployment of V2I and V2V communication is speeding up in many developed countries. For example, Japan already has an operational connected vehicle (CV) system at the national level, the US is considering a law mandating Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC) in new cars as communication protocol, and the European Union has developed a strategy aiming at massive deployment of the technology starting this year.

These technologies involve many opportunities for road operators—both for road design and operations—but they also pose many challenges. Let’s explore the opportunities and challenges and look at recommendations for countries or regions that would like to participate.

Based on surveys carried out on many existing projects all over the world, we can draw some general conclusions.

Stantec and the Space Institute Research Corporation at the University of Tennessee Space Institute have teamed up on a 2,000-acre test bed to evaluate connected vehicle and infrastructure technology. Roadside technology is critical to the success of the connected and automated vehicle future.

Road safety is paramount

The main benefits of these connected technologies include road safety, traffic management, and traffic information. But these technologies can also reduce costs for road operators or even generate revenue, as well as facilitate road design and asset management.

But there are many challenges to deploying a system like this. There are many questions to answer: What services should be deployed? With which technology (mainly DSRC or upcoming 5G)? How do we ensure interoperability? What are the changes in the road operator’s organization? How do we cooperate with car manufacturers? Under which business model? How can we ensure security and data protection?

Think big but start small

Experience shows that the best way to start with connected technologies is to start small and to learn by doing. Pilot deployments based on a few of the most mature services (the so-called Day 1 services) are a good start. The European Union describes Day 1 services as: emergency vehicle approaching, slow or stationary vehicle(s), traffic jam ahead warning.

But the key point is not technical, it is to involve all relevant stakeholders: road operators cannot deploy technology by themselves. They need to work in close relationship with car manufacturers and telecommunication carriers who will be delivering the service.

The second step of technology deployment after the connected vehicles will automated vehicles. This is a more complex implementation that will need closer cooperation amongst all partners.

Adding autonomous vehicles

For road operators, the implementation of the various technologies and infrastructure modifications for AVs needs to be tackled at the planning stage. In fact, the lifecycle length differences between communication technologies (DSRC or G5), digital infrastructure (high definition maps), and physical infrastructure (signage, road marking, pavement) are one of the key issues that will challenge road-network operators.

With recognition that vehicles are manufactured for global markets, significant international efforts are needed to harmonize traffic signs and road markings to ensure consistent recognition and safety. Road signage is not harmonized around the world, but it all comes from two guidelines: the Vienna Convention and the US Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The AV’s recognition system needs to understand all signage to act accordingly, so road operators needs to coordinate themselves and harmonize signage. Alternatively, some jurisdictions may decide to digitize all forms of signage by adding V2I connectivity.

Montreal launched its first electric AV shuttle pilot on June 27. Stantec engineers provided Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) work on the project.

Road-network operators may also consider designating lanes for vehicles with higher levels of automation, or platoons of vehicles which may enable the deployment of the technology while minimizing the risk of interactions with non-automated traffic. Nevertheless, consideration must be given to the optimum use of road networks and public transport needs. Automation has the potential to decrease vehicle headway (by removing the human factor) and thereby increase road capacity. Road-network operators must account for pavement and bridge fatigue as well as pavement condition in their planning and design efforts.

Managing the data

Data is a core element when it comes to autonomous driving. Data is collected, transmitted, processed, and analyzed to provide inputs to autonomous driving functions.

The challenge is that within a road network, operators must deal with various kinds of data—small and big data, static and dynamic data, data in different formats, open and closed data, etc. For instance, AVs need an HD digital map to be aware of their environment in a real time. These maps need to be accurate, so when the road operator makes a modification of the infrastructure, the data needs to be modified as well.

With increasing penetration of AVs in vehicle fleets, there is an expectation that expanded data and intelligence from connected autonomous vehicles, available in real time, will enable improved road-network operational control and response. Challenges exist with the availability, type, and consistency of data from vehicle manufacturers. Road operators also need to shift the way that their road networks are operated to thoroughly leverage the available data and implement the tools and control systems that can optimize network operations.

Technology in transportation is a major disruptive force for the next decade, all stakeholders need to coordinate their vision.

The transition to the roads of the future

The emergence of autonomous vehicles on public roads is expected to deliver a range of operational improvements. Some forecasts indicate significant improvements while others are less optimistic. Recent studies suggest that, in the longer term, higher penetration rates of AVs may provide some improvements to road capacity and utilization, however, during the interim, lower penetration rates may lead to reductions in operational capacity.

Recent trials have highlighted challenges for AVs to operate in mixed-use environments, such as zones shared with pedestrians. In addition to the difficulties associated with shuttles interacting with people, people also have varying expectations about how to interact and navigate in open spaces with AVs.

There are many social issues connected with autonomous transport. The potential benefits of autonomous transport may be limited by a range of human factor issues—over-reliance on technology; driver overload or underload; driver distraction; failing to trust or accept the technology leading to system misuse or disuse; loss of driver skill; adoption of risky driving behaviors; and what are the current attitudes, needs and beliefs towards autonomous transport.

Autonomous technology will surely have direct and indirect impacts on individuals and society—safety, mobility, travel behaviors, public finances, emissions, environment, education and more. Based on the culture, pros and cons of autonomous transport are not the same for all countries.

These technologies will improve road safety and road capacity. The replacement of infrastructure over time needs to be designed with the full implementation phase in mind. Data property and security is a major subject that needs to be tackled by the operator. While telecommunication carriers and car manufacturers are deeply involved in this subject, road operators must be as well. Technology in transportation is a major disruptive force for the next decade, all stakeholders need to coordinate their vision and social issues need to be mitigated by information campaigns to the general public.

Road operators, either private or public, need to put a road map in place and identify their key actions to lead the implementation of technology on their road network. If they do not, other stakeholders, such as car manufacturers and telecom carriers, will lead the way and road operators will have to adjust afterward.

  • Martin Thibault

    Martin is responsible for nearly 400 professionals and engineers specialized in transportation.

    Contact Martin
End of main content
To top