Autonomous vehicles: Highway designers brace for advent of self-driving cars

A rendering from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the entrance of a proposed testing facility for autonomous vehicles. The facility, whose site has yet to be selected, is slated to open in 2020. - (Photo / SUBMITTED)

While most people are focusing on the vehicles, engineering firm Herbert, Rowland & Grubic Inc. is focusing on the less glamorous side of what it will take to make cars and trucks drive by themselves: traffic engineering.

Autonomous vehicles have not had a big effect on the firm’s roadway design work yet, said Michael Babusci, transportation practice area leader at Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, or HRG.

For now the firm is monitoring the progress of autonomous vehicles, knowing that they will change the way its traffic engineers approach roadway design, which includes traffic signal systems.

It could take up to 40 years before self-driving cars are a part of everyday life, Babusci said. “The subject of autonomous vehicles, it’s not a nice neat little package.”

Most of the developments so far have been vehicle related, Babusci explained.

And autonomous-vehicle developers like Google and Ford have not yet enabled their systems to communicate with roadway features like signs, according to Babusci.

Roadway design is an issue that agencies like the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, as well as municipalities, will have to confront.

HRG may help PennDOT or the commission identify the elements roadway systems will need to communicate with autonomous vehicles, according to Babusci.

“It’s really going to be a conversation that needs to be held between the automobile manufacturers and the communication people who the state may not have even hired yet,” Babusci said.

The state is looking to create a research and training center for autonomous vehicles. The project, referred to as the Pennsylvania Safety, Transportation and Research Track, or PennSTART, was announced in April. It will address safety, training and research needs in six key areas: traffic incident management; tolling and intelligent transportation systems technology; work zones; commercial vehicles; transit vehicles; and connected and automated vehicles.

Ultimately, the way in which traffic engineers interact with the autonomous-vehicle industry in the long run depends upon what the vehicles are capable of doing, which isn’t yet clear, according to Babusci.

If they can reduce the distance between vehicles, for example, traffic engineers may have to recalculate the number of cars roadways can handle, Babusci said.

But increased capacity raises safety concerns, such as an increase in crashes among vehicles that are closer to each other, Babusci said.

“How much are we gaining in so much as efficiency in the system as opposed to how much we might be giving up in so much as safety of the system?” Babusci said.

He is confident that until state agencies are comfortable, autonomous cars won’t be hitting the road en masse.

“They don’t want to get into a situation that’s going to create a more dangerous situation just for the sake of improving capacity along the roadway,” Babusci said.

Still, Babusci believes autonomous cars ultimately will improve safety.

If a vehicle is traveling down the roadway, for instance, and receives an electronic warning that there is a curve ahead, the vehicle may slow itself down to negotiate the curve properly, he explained.

Tired drivers, who may not have the sharpest depth perception and who don’t know how fast they should be taking a curve they have never seen, may not navigate it as safely.

“It may not be what we’re all looking for as for as congestion goes, but certainly improvements are going to be there,” Babusci said.

Shelby White
Shelby White covers banking and finance, law and Lancaster County for the Central Penn Business Journal. For tips, email her at

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