Road improvements needed for self-driving cars, warns RAC Foundation

Road construction, worker with shovel

Self-driving and connected cars promise a number of benefits for road users, from safer roads to more leisure time during the morning commute.

But some of the road maintenance issues that cause problems for drivers – such as potholes, poor road markings and confusing signs – may also hamper the smooth rollout of driverless cars on the UK’s roads. 

That’s according to a new report prepared for the RAC Foundation – Readiness of the road network for connected and autonomous vehicles – which forecasts that highway maintenance will need to improve to support the introduction of self-driving and connected cars.

The report, by the consultancy CAS, finds that the arrival of autonomous vehicles will strengthen the case for improving maintenance – both to tackle the existing backlog of work required and to ensure the reliable operation of the information and communication systems required for self-driving and connected vehicles.

According to the report, much will depend on the ability of autonomous vehicles to ‘read the road’ and make allowances for potholes, poor road markings and complicated signals and signs. 

As an example, the report highlights the potential danger if an autonomous vehicle travelling in a fast-moving, close-formation platoon hits a pothole. 

“Driverless cars will make decisions based on their best assessment of their surroundings,” said Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation. 

“Throw in variables like potholes, unclear and obscured signs and lines, and intermittent communication coverage from our currently patchy network and you could find that far from offering the swift, comfortable travel we seek, our new autonomous cars are condemned to crawling along in ‘proceed with caution’ mode.”

The report’s author, Dr Charles Johnson, notes that autonomous vehicles (AVs) must be able to replicate four elements of human driver behaviour: observation, analysis, decision-making and taking effective action.

Driverless cars will make decisions based on their best assessment of their surroundings
— Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation.

“All four levels of ‘cognitive performance’ required by AVs will have implications for infrastructure since the last three will all be dependent on the accuracy of the first”, says the report.

“While motorists might accept a degree of human error and its consequences when they themselves are at the wheel, the experience from public transport is that when people are being driven rather [than] driving they have almost zero tolerance for safety failings,” said Gooding.

“The record on our roads is a long way from that today, but just focusing on the safety of the vehicle – its design and its software – isn’t going to bridge the gap. Getting the road infrastructure right is integral to ensuring an all-round safe system.”