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Rhode of the future: Top ten takeaways from an international CAV summit

Jonathan Spear | 13 Apr 2017 | Comments

A dozen managers and experts from global transport agencies met this month in Rhode Island, USA for a Technical Committee meeting of the World Road Association (WRA). The meeting also provided an unmissable opportunity for Atkins to take the initiative in organizing an international summit on the subject of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) and what they mean for future highway and transport policy, road design and the planning of cities.

This summit, hosted jointly by Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and WRA on April 6, saw presentations and contributions from Singapore, Austria, Australia, Sweden and several speakers from the USA. We are proud to have had two speakers at the summit: I set out the key international trends and challenges for CAVs from a public policy and regulatory perspective, as well as covering the implications for future highway and urban planning and design. Suzanne Murtha, senior project director from Atkins in North America, gave a focused US analysis. 

Out of the summit came some great viewpoints and plans across national boundaries, many specific and set within the local context. However, there was a remarkable degree of consensus and understanding of common issues. Here, in no particular order, are our top ten takeaways emerging across the countries represented.

  1. Widespread AV (Automated Vehicle) adoption as societal level is someway off, well into the 2020s or beyond, but preparation and planning for this prospect needs to start now, with governments leading, rather than avoiding or ignoring, the debate, especially as Connected Vehicles of varying types are currently being deployed;
  2. Governments and transport agencies need to identify and meet the substantial technical, regulatory and practical challenges in the short- and medium-term to reap the major economic, social and environmental benefits in the long-term, and strike a balance between immediate public safety, technology and innovation and private sector initiative;
  3. Much as manufacturers and developers may want a free hand, the speed of CAV development and adoption will be dictated as much by policies, laws and regulations set by government as it is by technology from industry. This includes setting proportionate, open or inter-operable technical standards and regulations which align across national boundaries and give confidence and incentive to industry to develop a range of commercial products and services;
  4. The pathways for connected infrastructure and autonomous vehicles are on different timelines, stakeholder relationships and delivery chains, with a “chicken and egg” problem for which comes first and how they interact.  If CVs are mandated, AVs will be a part of that, thereby forcing early integration of the two technology sets;
  5. The immediate focus now, and for the next few years, is on testing, demonstration, validation and deploying of CAV technology. This is vital to provide the safety case, volume of data and operating experience of vehicles and systems to assure regulators they are safe, resilient and viable for wider deployment and adoption;
  6. There is a major challenge of the transition period between manual driving by humans and fully automated vehicle operation at the societal level. Not only is the length and shape of this transition inherently uncertain, but there are major issues for how mixed traffic scenarios between manual vehicles and AVs will be managed safely and efficiently;
  7. Whilst it can be assumed that CAVs will use highway capacity more efficiently, safely and accurately, the point at which this may result in changes to physical highway design, layout and management principles, and what these changes might look like, are major areas for future research;
  8. The full benefits of CAVs in terms of reducing traffic volumes, congestion, emissions and accidents may only occur when the technology is combined with other concepts such as electrification and a shift in business model from private ownership to shared use of centrally managed fleets. The latter, in particular, will play out differently across countries and the presence, or otherwise, of a “driving culture” whereby vehicle ownership and manual operation is seen as a right rather than a utility;
  9. Governments, vehicle manufacturers, technology companies and academia will need to forge new partnerships to drive the CAV agenda forward, bringing different roles, skills sets, interests and activities together and forging active collaboration; and
  10. Ultimately, CAVs are more than a transport project. They will shape the long-term future of the spatial planning and urban form of cities and regions. Planners, architects, city managers and developers need to engage with the debate.  

One further point struck me from the discussions. CAVs are currently very much an agenda for advanced economies. Yet WRA includes member countries which are still developing in their stage of economic and social status. It is therefore important to consider new vehicle concepts, for example in Africa and Asia, which may improve road safety in particular from a more basic and appropriate technology perspective.

Rhode Island was a great forum for current thinking on the development and deployment of CAVs, a point acknowledged by RIDOT’s director in thanking “the greatest minds from across the world” for their contributions. The discussions will directly help RIDOT in developing its future CAV strategy and deployment plan, and linking this to wider spatial planning and economic development opportunities for the State.  

Furthermore, through WRA, the intention is to push the CAV agenda forward and drive further thought leadership at the World Road Congress in Abu Dhabi in 2019.


Jonathan Spear, director, strategic transport, Atkins Acuity, Singapore

Suzanne Murtha, senior project director, Atkins, Washington DC, North America

Note: Atkins is a corporate member of the World Road Association and nominates a number of technical experts to participate in Technical Committees on a four year cycle leading to a World Road Congress. Jonathan Spear is chair of a working group within Technical Committee A1 on the performance of transport administrations. The April 2017 TC meeting was hosted by RIDOT in the city of Providence and the CAV summit was conceived as an associate event bringing together TC members from several countries with local consultants and public agencies from the USA.  

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