The impact of self-driving cars on infrastructure design

Posted in: Bridges, Municipal, Transportation

There’s no way around it – self-driving cars are in our future. Companies like Google and Uber are currently testing self-driving cars, and car companies like Tesla and Ford have announced plans to release self-driving cars for purchase within the next five years. This will bring an interesting change in the transportation industry.

Right now, transportation engineers design infrastructure to anticipate human behavior. If self-driving cars’ abilities are as comprehensive as we’ve been promised, we may need to rethink our designs to accommodate computer instead of human drivers.

Roadway design

Current lanes are designed wider than standard vehicle widths to account for human error and distraction while driving. A pronounced benefit of self-driving cars is that they will consistently maintain navigational control in a smaller lane. An initial observation is that vehicular lane widths can be decreased. This same concept can apply to exit ramps and curves – they can be shortened and tightened. The extra room on existing roadways could then be repurposed to accommodate additional travel lanes or pedestrian facilities. Additionally, new location roadways could be designed within smaller footprints. Self-driving cars’ precision and control will also decrease the need for wide shoulders, guard rails, rumble strips, recoverable slopes and other safety measures currently in practice.

Intersection traffic

Assuming self-driving cars will communicate with other self-driving cars, traffic signals would become obsolete. These cars would communicate with each other as they approached an intersection, determining the precise speeds and routes of other vehicles. Each car would then be able to navigate through this intersection without a single collision. This type of chaos seems inconceivable to us now. With self-driving cars, though, this apparent chaos would actually be finely-tuned, computer-calculated and highly organized.

Maintenance of  traffic

Self-driving cars will also change the way construction projects handle maintenance of traffic. These cars would be unable to interpret a construction worker’s hand gestures signaling lane shifts or closures. Instead, construction plans could be uploaded into a database that would automatically download the maintenance of traffic information to all self-driving cars. For changes that might occur on short notice, construction workers could use wireless beacons to communicate with incoming self-driving cars via electronic signals about approaching roadway impediments.

This is all assuming, of course, that self-driving cars can fulfill every science fiction fantasy we’ve had about this technology. This specific future relies on self-driving cars being easily accessible to all motorists. While we do not fully know how or when these modern marvels will affect the future of transportation engineering, the excitement lies in the possibilities. What impacts do you think self-driving cars will have on your specific field?


Jessica Johns, PE is a roadway engineer with a strong knowledge of design, project development and project management. Her experience working within the South Carolina Department of Transportation makes her a valuable resource for departmental plans and procedures. She has a highly diverse background, providing her with the ability to foresee potential issues from various angles.

3 responses on “The impact of self-driving cars on infrastructure design

  1. Very interesting article Jessica! I wonder how this will work during the many year transition period as self-driving cars share the road with older, human driven vehicles.

  2. I am in the construction side of the infrastructure industry. What of the potholes? Will a driverless car know when to slide over in its now narrower lane to avoid a flat tire? I can’t even imagine the temporary, constantly changing/moving instrumentation it will require to guide driverless cars though a major intercity interstate re-build project. I see this as the most imperfect circumstances to overcome for a technology that will likely require near-perfect conditions to function safely and efficiently. Not insurmountable issues, but perhaps limiting in the technolegy’s implementation.

  3. Good observations. This period will be the toughest and most exciting as we ttansition to all autonomous vehicles.

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