A report for the RAC Foundation has said that autonomous or self-driving vehicles rely on being able to ‘read the road’ and make allowances for potholes, poor road markings and complicated signals.


The report, Readiness of the road network for connected and autonomous vehicles, found human drivers have four areas of competence which autonomous vehicles will be required to replicate. These are observation, analysis, decision-making and taking effective action.


The report’s author, Dr Charles Johnson, said ‘all four levels of "cognitive performance" required by autonomous vehicles will have implications for infrastructure since the last three will all be dependent on the accuracy of the first.’


Dr Johnson warned of the possible dangers that a poorly maintained highway could pose if any of the autonomous vehicles travelling in a fast-moving, close-formation platoon hits a pothole.


The report also said the advent of connected cars will mean the authorities will have to ensure the associated communication and information systems are up to standard and offer comprehensive coverage. This will also mean the sector will need a more highly-qualified and highly-paid workforce.


‘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.

‘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 driving they have almost zero tolerance for safety failings.

‘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.’


The report states that autonomy could require enhanced standards of road maintenance, to ensure that driverless vehicles are able to ‘sense’ the road environment accurately – the delineation of the carriageway, lane markings, traffic signs and signals etc. This conclusion sits awkwardly with the current state of our roads, with the government’s own estimates for the maintenance backlog running into many billions. One thing is for certain – whatever trajectory emerges for the driverless car, we won’t be travelling very far unless we have an adequately maintained network to drive on.


This story first appeared on Transport Network: