Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Technological advances are set to transform not only vehicles — as they take on more autonomy and connectivity — but also transportation infrastructure.

Why it matters: Developing technology for AVs to communicate with other vehicles as well as infrastructure like streets, traffic lights and road signs could both improve safety and decrease congestion.

Details: Several initiatives are already building prototypes of smart infrastructure components, some of which could potentially communicate with AVs directly.

  • Australian company Büro North has proposed traffic lights on the ground capable of lighting up in response to pedestrians.
  • Umbrellium in the UK has developed Starling Crossing, a pedestrian crossing that uses lights and signals to direct traffic. It relies on a neural-network framework that can anticipate people's movements and change the configuration of a crossing or buffer zone accordingly.
  • MIT's Senseable City Lab has developed slot-based intersections, modeled after air traffic control systems, that could double the rate at which vehicles move through intersections. A traffic-management system could control traffic signals and allow AVs and connected vehicles to request permission to pass through as they approach.
  • IFSTARR in France has developed dismountable urban pavement, which could be lifted and repositioned if roadways or underground systems need maintenance.
  • Building on IFSTARR's concept, Sidewalk Labs and Carlo Ratti Associati have designed a reconfigurable paving system so that streets can be converted for different uses. Light signals in the pavement and interchangeable poles and barriers could communicate whether the roadway is open to traffic on a weekday morning, or closed off and converted into a playground for families on weekends.

Yes, but: Upgrading existing infrastructure would be expensive and time-consuming, so municipalities may need to assess which technologies would have the most impact.

  • Additionally, a connected infrastructure system would collect enormous amounts of data on how, when, and where people travel. It would be crucial to protect that data and leverage it responsibly in order to build public trust and get public buy-in.

What’s next: If labs continue developing and refining prototypes and coordinate with AV companies, different elements of smart infrastructure could ultimately work together.

Carlo Ratti is an architect and engineer who leads the Carlo Ratti Associati design practice and the MIT Senseable City Lab.

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