Ideally, vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication will play a similar role.
By enabling vehicles to connect with a central infrastructure network, V2I tech -- very little of which is currently operational -- helps individual vehicles safely navigate the roads by arming them with as much information as possible from the roads themselves. In theory, self-driving cars could even operate without sensors in an optimized, fully connected V2I setting.
Not surprisingly, more advanced forms of the prospective "I" in V2I will be tremendously expensive, and could take years or even decades to fully implement.
Meanwhile, the autonomous vehicles that would take advantage of V2I are advancing at a much quicker pace, with many OEMs aiming to have self-driving cars on the road by 2020 or 2021. That means the first generation of self-driving vehicles will have to do without a central network helping guide them. That's not to say, however, that they'll be without any help on the road.
At the Connected Roads division of manufacturing conglomerate 3M, teams of scientists and developers have long worked to make roads safer in ways that are practical, achievable and inexpensive -- which, in the sector of on-the-road safety solutions, makes them unique, innovative and attractive.
"I've seen lots of different innovation around [truly connected infrastructure] -- embedding materials, luminescence, connectivity," 3M business manager Colin Sultan told Fast Co. Design. "That all is extremely expensive. The solutions that we're talking about are solutions we can actually do very quickly and very inexpensively."
Since the 1990s, 3M has been making key road markings easy to see for drivers, especially in adverse weather conditions. Those products include refractive beads that make lane markings reflective and easily visible in the rain; retroreflective sign materials that absorb a great amount of light, making signs easier to see in the dark; and fluorescent technology that make caution cones and traffic control signs more visible in order to protect road workers.
Recently, 3M has also been developing road visibility technology that is designed specifically for the car of tomorrow. In May, the company partnered with the Michigan Department of Transportation to design and install visibility technology that was specially tailored to the sensors that outfit autonomous vehicles.
"3M will be providing MDOT with advanced all-weather lane markings, retroreflective signs with smart sign technology and DSRC (dedicated short-range communication) devices for vehicle to infrastructure communications," the company wrote in a statement announcing the partnership. "The updated, modern materials will allow for redundancy and greater machine vision, as well as improved driver safety on the roadways."
While not as complex as some of the more expensive, advanced forms of autonomous vehicle infrastructure, the products that 3M offers still require great care -- smart signage technology, for instance, has been shown to be vulnerable to hacks. Fortunately, preventing those missteps is something that 3M, with its extensive history of making roads safer, is uniquely poised to do.