Before autonomous vehicles hit the streets, this is the infrastructure cities need

Countless auto manufacturers and tech companies are developing autonomous vehicles (AVs), and in the next few decades, their introduction will change mobility forever. Their deployment, however, requires cooperation from cities and changes to urban infrastructure. To prepare for AVs, cities need to rethink the relationship between physical and regulatory infrastructure. Decoupling rules from physical infrastructure will create opportunities to influence transportation behavior in ways that are impossible with human drivers.

Typically, people think about infrastructure as physical assets, such as roads, signage and stop lights. But infrastructure also includes the rules that govern how public assets can be used. Roads allow people to travel efficiently in cities, but without the rule that requires driving on the right-hand side of the road, the value of the infrastructure is diminished.

Traditionally, mobility infrastructure is understood by humans through sight (i.e. a red light means stop, a curb marks the edge of the street), but the challenge with AVs is teaching machines how to interpret the same environment through digital means.

Digitizing the rules, rates and regulations of the curb is a crucial step for cities as they prepare for the future. Physical infrastructure is costly and difficult to change quickly, but with the right tools in place, cities can adjust digital regulatory infrastructure much more frequently. With the widespread use of mobile applications for parking payments, navigation and other mobility services, cities have already started to put their curbside regulations in a digital format. These applications can receive rule changes in real-time and communicate the changes immediately to drivers.

As we transition from human drivers to AVs, physical and regulatory infrastructure must become separate. Unlike humans, AVs will be able to consume and adapt to widespread and complex changes in real-time. For example, a city could change a road from a one-way into a two-way street based on congestion by communicating the change to AVs, allowing them to make the transition in real-time. Or a delivery zone at the curb could be reallocated for pick-ups and drop-offs to account for weather changes.

To prepare, cities need to invest in flexible, digital infrastructure instead of overhauling their physical infrastructure. While some physical infrastructure changes will be necessary, cities should keep flexibility in mind rather than betting on a specific prediction for how physical space will be used in the future. For this autonomous future to become a reality, it requires every city to create a single source of truth for their mobility regulations and rules.