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Delegates gathered excitedly in San Diego at the 2009 annual meeting of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America for a demonstration of autonomous vehicle travel. What they saw was really a combination of adaptive cruise control, maintained distance and lane alignment. The demonstration took place along just a few miles of road. 

At the time, the barriers to AV technology were considerable and true autonomy seemed out of reach. But the private sector has continued to plough millions into AV design. The advent of 5G and advances in vehicle electrification have propelled the sector even further. And at the recent ITS World Congress, the chief executives of major automakers such as General Motors and Ford announced that the production of advanced autonomous vehicles was integral to their strategy.  

Some forms of AV are already very much a reality. The technology is being rolled out in the agricultural sector, shuttle services for corporate and university campuses are readily available, and innovation around autonomous trucking systems is reaching an inflexion point.  

The technology required for passenger cars is advancing rapidly too. Google’s self-driving car project Waymo has run robotaxi pilots in Arizona and California. The timescale for commercial-scale adoption of level-four autonomy – vehicles operating in geofenced areas – has been pushed back to at least 2025. “In terms of level-five cars that can go anywhere, with no steering wheel or pedals while you sit in the back seat and read, that is probably not going to happen before 2030,” says Peter Durante, whom Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets hired last year in a tech and innovation role. 

Time horizons may have shifted, but autonomous vehicles are on their way. When combined with advances in ride-sharing technology, the implications for infrastructure are enormous. Durante believes that the impact of AV on traditional infrastructure assets such as roads, bridges and tunnels will be positive. While there may be fewer cars on the roads overall, road travel will be more efficient and there will be more of it. 

“Shared autonomous transportation services – robotaxis – will drive down the cost per mile,” says Durante. “That means you can expect more travel.  

“It’s the same dynamic we saw with air travel. As mobility becomes cheaper, there will be more mobility. Autonomous travel will also widen the mobile population, enabling those who can’t currently drive, due to age or disability, to access cars.” 

Massive amounts of investment will be required to create smart roads capable of interacting with autonomous vehicles. “5G will be critical to the type of data exchange required between autonomous vehicles and the urban environments where they operate,” says Ross Israel, head of global infrastructure at QIC.  

Autonomous vehicles will be massive producers and consumers of data. The need for connectivity will soar, creating ancillary demand for fibre, towers and data storage – and associated energy requirements. Ultimately, the fleets may even become infrastructure assets themselves, akin to public transport investments. 

The combination of autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing could displace car ownership, reducing the number of vehicles on the road and changing car parking facilities. 

On-street parking will be particularly affected. Mobility-as-a-service schemes will see vehicles dropping passengers at their destination before moving on or retiring to a charging station. QIC’s Israel says significant investment will be required in kerbside management schemes at large demand generators such as hospitals, airports and railways: “AVs and the associated infrastructure will redefine high-density areas where there is significant congestion. Kerbside management will be key with respect to drop-off and pick-up efficiency.”  

Car park conundrum 

Some airports are already exploring pick-up/drop-off schemes. Durante says airports are also at the forefront of efforts to repurpose excess parking capacity, including the possibility of air taxis integrated with conventional aviation. 

There will also be a need for large-scale parking, where AVs can “nest”. “The fleets will need to be parked somewhere, to be charged, serviced and cleaned,” Durante says. “That will create significant demand in appropriate locations.” 

But these car parks may be very different in terms of the services they offer. Some of the largest companies are already working with manufacturers and electricity companies to reserve charging spaces for electric vehicles. 

The design of car parks will also need to change. Autonomous vehicles will be better at manoeuvring than human drivers. Having dropped their passengers off, there will be no need to open doors, so cars can be parked closer together. And rather than an ‘island’ formation that allows all vehicles to move freely in and out, a grid-based structure will prove most efficient, with outer cars moving aside to let inner cars leave. University of Toronto research into optimal parking formations used AI to devise a system that would allow 87 percent more cars than conventional methods.  

There may be fewer vehicles on the road – or in car parks – in an autonomous future, but there is plenty of opportunity for investors to facilitate the transition.