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The End of Street Lighting?

Headlights and street lights lead the way for drivers to move around safely. As autonomous vehicles interact with their environments through sensors rather than "seeing" as we do now, will the cars of the future need headlights at all?

By Michael Manserra


October 25, 2018

When we visualize a modern roadway, many people imagine busy streets or highways with elements like pavement markings, curbs, traffic signals, cross walks, and street lighting poles. With the emerging presence of autonomous vehicles, it’s easy to imagine how disruptive these technologies might be in comparison to the conventional roadway environment.

Today’s roadway environment is largely designed around the human senses and their limitations in order to help us communicate with each other on the road. This is why we need pavement markings to guide drivers down the road in predictable lines, curbs to prevent errant vehicles from injuring pedestrians or damaging property, and traffic signals to tell us when to stop and when to go. Our turn signals and horn provide us with some means of communicating our intentions (and frustrations) to other drivers, bikers and pedestrians. We need light to see when it is dark, so we illuminate the traveled portion of our roadways with street lights and our car’s headlights when darkness falls. But will this always be the case?

Autonomous vehicles don’t ‘see’ or perceive their surroundings the same way that humans do. Today’s autonomous cars employ a variety of sensors, including radar, LiDAR, and infrared camera systems that don’t require light in the visible spectrum like the human eye does to perceive the world around our vehicles. In this marketing piece from Ford Motor Co., Ford describes the results from testing their AV’s in complete darkness.So long as we have human-piloted vehicles on the road, our streets won’t look much different. But in the more distant future, if all road vehicles were fully autonomous, would we still need to illuminate our roadways? Would fully autonomous cars still have headlights?

Many municipalities and transportation authorities have eagerly shifted to LED street lighting to save costs on energy consumption and maintenance. Just imagine the energy and maintenance savings that could be achieved if lighting our roadways was no longer required at all! Environmentally, this would drastically reduce overall night-time illumination in our cities and towns, and also protect the habitats of nocturnal animals from light pollution.

From a human perspective, it would probably take some time for people to feel comfortable as passengers and pedestrians along these new, dark roadways we are imagining. Most likely, AV’s would still have some marker lights to communicate their position to human occupant of other AV’s and pedestrians. With less attention on road lighting, there could be a shift towards illuminating pedestrian areas, as opposed to the current approach where sidewalk lighting is more often an afterthought. Though it’s too soon to predict the future, AV’s may lay the ground for the next bright idea!


Michael is an Electrical Engineer with over 7 years of experience in electrical engineering and lighting design. His wide diversity of projects include commercial buildings of all types, mass transit, and highway and roadway electrical from proposal submissions to handovers. Michael’s recent lighting activities cover a number of large linear infrastructure and transportation projects such as designing conventional, high mast and underpass lighting, pedestrian lighting, lighting control systems, power distribution, and communications for roadway lighting.

IBI Group’s LEAD program is designed to support employees who have the potential and desire to be future leaders within IBI Group; with the goal of assisting participants to learn about themselves, enhance new skills, and develop leadership competencies.


Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

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