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Is construction ready for the driverless revolution?

Car vehicle transport road technology 02A16Y8Y

Imagine using an app to book a car to work everyday – and your driver is an artificial intelligence system. It might sound like something from science fiction, but driverless cars are closer than we think. But is construction ready to play its part? Lucy Alderson finds out. 

How do you usually travel to work?

You might take the train, squeezing your limbs into spaces that just aren’t there on an overcrowded carriage. You might take the bus, then wish you hadn’t as you crawl forward five inches in 10 minutes during the rush-hour commute. You might cycle, shaking your fists at overtaking cars that get too close for comfort.

But in three years time, you might be travelling to work in a radically new mode of transportation.

In last year’s Autumn Statement, chancellor Philip Hammond announced driverless cars will be on our roads in 2021. 

We could be using apps to book a seat in one of these vehicles, with no one behind the wheel to navigate from A to B. Digital infrastructure such as sensors along our roads could be used to control how these cars interact with their surroundings. These vehicles could receive information from this network and use it to avoid potential collisions and move people around efficiently.

Sounds great – but you may be wondering where construction fits into the picture. Our existing infrastructure needs updating to accommodate this new technology, and it’s up to the industry to find out how best to deliver this – with the prospect of new markets emerging.

Electric avenue

Before construction can start thinking about driverless cars, it needs to consider the impact electric vehicles will have on the industry.

PwC global research and thought leadership director Adrian Del Maestro considers electric cars to be the “first phase” of the move towards autonomous vehicles.

He describes autonomous cars as the “next wave”, in which vehicles will run on electricity but be driven by “computer-sensored technology” – known otherwise as artificial intelligence – instead of humans.

Pressure is already being put on government to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road. In January this year, the Committee on Climate Change watchdog reported that 60 per cent of new cars and vans sold would need to be electric by 2030 if the country wants to hit its greenhouse gas targets. In Scotland, the country’s first ‘electric highway’ – the A9 – will be built, which will see charging points located at various intervals along the route.

Amid the drive towards getting more environmentally friendly vehicles on the road, clients are already developing new infrastructure and building assets to accommodate this.

“Construction needs to think when they are building new homes, infrastructure, roads and cities for example, that they should be encouraging available charging points” 

Adrian Del Maestro, PwC

Scottish developer Springfield Properties announced in January that electric car charging points would be a standard feature in all its future new-build properties. Its 3,000-home development in Perth will be the first project on which this initiative will be rolled out.

“Construction needs to think about what role it has to play in all this,” Mr Del Maestro says, especially when it comes to providing charging points for electric vehicles. “People are still concerned about how we can charge these vehicles […] so to get these volume rates of electric vehicles up, people need to feel that they can charge easily.

“They need to be able to charge at home and there need to be opportunities to charge in the workplace (which is an emerging trend). Construction needs to think when they are building new homes, infrastructure, roads and cities for example, that they should be encouraging available charging points.”

Wave two: autonomous vehicles

Once construction starts to accommodate electric cars in developing infrastructure and built assets, it can start to tap into the opportunities that autonomous vehicles could introduce to the market.

But work to determine exactly how driverless cars will operate on roads – and how construction can facilitate this – is still in a research and development stage.

However, former Highways England director of innovation Richard Porter predicts a radical update of existing infrastructure will be needed to enable data to be constantly relayed between these assets and driverless cars.

Dr Porter is now UK testbed strategy lead at Meridian, a body set up by government and industries including manufacturing, technology and construction to advance the development of autonomous cars.

He says sensors could be installed along the roads or in cats eyes to simultaneously capture and send information to and from these vehicles. This will allow cars to navigate safely along the most efficient route, with local authorities receiving information on traffic flow to regulate roads.

Road tarmac surface sensor cats eyes 02328

Road tarmac surface sensor cats eyes 02328

Sensors in the road will be needed to capture and relay data

For construction companies, there is a “massive opportunity” to build the necessary infrastructure, but Dr Porter says the “biggest pay-off” will be in maintaining these assets. “There’s potentially some really interesting opportunities for construction companies in terms of consuming data to better plan maintenance work: for example, monitoring where infrastructure is deteriorating and where the faults are,” he says.

Dustin Parkman, civil and reality modelling vice-president for industry software provider Bentley, agrees that opportunities in maintaining this digital infrastructure will benefit the bottom line.

He suggests that, while contractors currently focus on delivering physical assets, the demand for autonomous cars means contractors will also need to provide digital representations of these assets as well. These digital copies of built assets will be used for their operation and maintenance.

“Firms need to get ideas from similar sectors, such as telecommunications. This would probably help them understand the landscape a bit better” 

Richard Porter, Highways England

“Many [clients] will start to shift the risk and responsibility to contractors to maintain smart assets and do less of that themselves,” Mr Parkman says. “It forces the contractor to share the risk of building a quality system and offers them profitability, [as] smart systems potentially have a much higher profit margin.”

But construction has a “huge way to go” in implementing technology such as this, according to Dr Porter. Contractors need to undergo a change in mindset, he says – and one way to do this is to look outside of the construction industry for joint ventures and partnerships.

“Firms need to think about future business models and how data will help them be more competitive,” he says. “They need to look outside industry and get ideas from similar sectors, such as telecommunications. This would probably help them understand the landscape a bit better.”

Is construction ready to ride the wave?

Aecom is one company leading the way on the development of driverless car technology.

As part of the 20-company Capri consortium, Aecom has been designing, developing and testing autonomous vehicles to take people around campus-style areas such as Heathrow and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Aecom Capri pod 1

Aecom Capri pod 1

Aecom has been testing autonomous vehicles around areas such as Heathrow and the Olympic Park

The consortium was awarded £4.2m of funding from Innovate UK and the Centre for Connected & Autonomous Vehicles, but Aecom has been investing its own money to develop this technology as well.

Aecom head of technology services for Europe Lee Street says that although the company and others in Capri may not be getting much financial return on their investment, the consortium represents an opportunity to show their leadership in technology and transportation.

“If we’re looking at major technology disruptors over the next 20 years, this is exactly what companies like Aecom have to be involved with” 

Lee Street, Aecom

“Yes, we might not be making money on this,” he says. “But if we’re in this for the long term and we’re looking at major technology disruptors over the next 20 years, this is exactly what companies like Aecom have to be involved with.”

However, Mr Street questions whether construction and government will be ready for driverless cars to hit the roads by 2021, suggesting 2030 as a more likely date. He bases this on the need for more understanding of the technology, the impact it will have on infrastructure, and the task of passing legislation to get these cars on the road.

And with the UK’s ageing and congested road network, he says it will be “difficult” to put together a business case for additional infrastructure for these cars to be built.

For contractors already working on lean margins, are there going to be many companies willing to put their hands in their pockets and invest in pushing this development forward? “It’s difficult to balance investment in uncertain environments, but possibilities are almost certainly coming up,” Dr Porter says.

Leading construction companies are looking into developing technology such as sensors for projects such as the A14 and smart motorways, he adds. This technology will “probably bleed through into the tier twos and threes” according to Dr Porter, providing an “opportunity for the whole industry” to get involved.

Automated vehicles are poised to offer contractors not only the chance to win work, but to work more efficiently as a result of developing the necessary technology.

Regardless of whether we’ll be travelling down the M25 in a driverless car as soon as 2021, the road signs still point to huge changes ahead.

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