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Autonomous vehicles and potholes: it just won’t work

Earlier this month [March] there was exciting news from Sunderland. The city will be trialling three self-driving shuttle buses which will transport people between Sunderland Interchange, the University of Sunderland City Campus and the Sunderland Royal Hospital.

The Sunderland Advanced Mobility Shuttle (SAMS) project aims to move autonomous bus technology forward by developing a system for operating buses remotely and safely. But there’s rather a big elephant in the room (or on the shuttle): autonomous vehicles (AVs) can’t cope with potholes.

In time, machine learning which can recognise potholes in real time may be developed (although how would they do that if the pothole is under water?). However, right now, the technology isn’t available. So, either AVs run the risk of hurting passengers, other road users and themselves when they hit a pothole, or they will have to crawl along in ‘proceed with caution’ mode on roads that are likely to be in poor repair.

Tesla is some way along that road to pothole detection.  In 2022 it said that its suspension in newer models would be able to automatically adapt to rough roads – if maps for sections of rough roads had been generated by other Teslas and were available. But that isn’t the same as AVs being able to detect and avoid potholes.

UK falling behind

The UK may be driving ahead with developing AVs, but it’s falling behind in terms of the readiness of its infrastructure to deploy them. KPMG’s 2020 Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index (AVRI) ranked the UK 9th overall – Sinapore was first, followed by the Netherlands and Norway - but when you dig down into its infrastructure ranking, the story is not so good.

The AVRI assesses countries under four categories: policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance. In the infrastructure category, the UK is ranked a disappointing 16th.  For policy and legislation, KPMG ranked the UK second; for technology and innovation 9th; and for consumer readiness 12th.

Commenting on the importance of the quality of roads for AV readiness, KPMG says in its AVRI report: “AVs will work better on high-quality roads, with poor highways limiting a country’s adoption.”

And it looks like things are getting worse. Consulting the International Institute for Management Development’s (IMD’s) World Competitiveness Ranking, the UK comes in at a lowly 22nd in the infrastructure category in 2023, falling from a position of 12th in 2020.

In short, the UK cannot be a world leader in AV technology without having the basic infrastructure to support it. Good quality roads have always been the lifeblood of a healthy economy, and that will be just as true tomorrow as it is today.



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