How roads can support the uptake of autonomous and electric vehicles

New vehicles technologies could improve road safety and cut transport sector emissions – but unlocking their potential depends on smart infrastructure.

Every day brings a new story about progress from vehicle manufacturers on cutting-edge technologies. Connected, autonomous vehicles could change the game for the sector, and electric vehicles are beginning to go mainstream.

Yet roads are the critical and universal platform on which all these technologies need to operate. Unless innovation in road infrastructure keeps pace with the advances in the automotive sector, traffic growth will remain a serious problem and the true potential of these technologies will not be realised. As Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor at University of South Carolina puts it, “We focus on what’s really sexy, like self-driving cars. And we forget about all of the supporting technologies that could be really important.”

The OECD says that involuntary human error causes 70% of road traffic accidents. Autonomous vehicles have been designed to make that a thing of the past. “The opportunity to reduce the overall injury rate is therefore quite enormous,” according to James Anderson, director of the Institute for Civil Justice at RAND Corporation. But “the automated vehicle cannot work unless there is smart infrastructure,” as José Papi, chairman of the Smart Transportation Alliance explains.

That’s because autonomous vehicles must be aware of both static surroundings – such as roads and telephone poles – and other vehicles, by using sensors like cameras, ultrasonic detectors, and light detection and radar (LiDAR). Their ability to interact with the road infrastructure and other vehicles can be enhanced by “internet of things” systems that provide wireless connectivity and mobile network access. Vodafone, for example, is testing vehicle-to-vehicle communication over 5G networks. There are strong signs of progress – but there’s some way to go before roadside connectivity moves into the mainstream.  

A parallel trend is a shift away from internal combustion engines towards electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids. EV sales doubled in Europe in 2015 relative to the previous year, making the region the second-largest market in the world after China. And in Summer 2017, Volvo announced that all its new cars will be partially or completely battery-powered from 2019. The potential to reduce emissions and improve air quality in this way is significant.

Despite improving battery charging capacity, “range anxiety” persists – as drivers worry that an electric car’s battery might run out of power before they can find a recharging station. To speed their adoption it is therefore essential to expand the network of charging stations along highways between cities. If this issue is addressed, McKinsey estimates that the share of EVs in total new-vehicle sales could reach 50% over the next decade or two.

The Corri-Door initiative is testing new approaches to overcome this challenge. A cross-sector coalition of energy companies, vehicle manufacturers and road operators has created a network of 200 fast-charge terminals across Europe for all electric vehicles – setting new standards on how to create a connected and interoperable charging systems across multiple countries.

As the world’s leading toll road operator, the Abertis network of roads and highways is the platform for smarter, cleaner and safer mobility – because the only way to accelerate the adoption of these game-changing vehicles is by pushing forward new road technologies.

Read more on the latest developments in Road Tech.