Watch What Traffic Will Look Like When Cars Drive Themselves

An awesome visualization of how automated cars will traverse an intersection. Wait though! This looks familiar …

The driverless car is coming. We’ve been promised the driverless car for a while, mind you, but this time it seems like it’s really here. Google is road testing one and everything. But cars aren’t independent entities. They are part of a larger infrastructure of transportation. As the technology of driving changes, it’s a good time to think about the design of the rest of the system.

Over at The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger looks at what intersections might look like with driverless cars. Computer scientist Peter Stone argues that better sensors and software will allow for more efficient use of intersections. Gone will be the days of people stuck at lights, waiting for a red even though the opposite way is clear. Instead, Stone proposes a more steady flowing of traffic, with an animation of what that might look like.

Badger is intrigued but skeptical, calling the whole idea "far-fetched". The commenters, even more so, citing fears about high technology’s tendency to crash and the general unreliability of computers (which is so interesting to me, given the rampant unreliability of people). For my part, looking at the animation just made me think of traffic in Vietnam or India or wherever this is:

Watching these videos, it looks a lot like someone’s already implemented Stone’s algorithms.

What’s interesting about the skepticism towards automated driving is that it reveals how invisible the current systems of automation already are. Traffic control in most cities is already monitored and controlled by wired up intersections laced with a complex network of sensors and lights, designed to cause traffic to flow smoothly around town. In many ways, the fallible fleshy pilots of vehicles are the last remaining organic components of a city-wide cybernetic system.

It is instructive to trace the transformation of the traffic cop, from human agent fixing local traffic flow, to the robot servant of civil engineers. Here’s a passage from "Blocking All Lanes," an essay by Sean Dockray, Fiona Whitton, and Steven Rowell in The Infrastructural City which recounts that change.

Over time, the traffic cop was slowly transformed: his hands took on white gloves for visibility; his voice was replaced by a whistle; and eventually, he was elevated in a tower and communicated with the traffic via signs or coloured lights. The police officer slowly vanished, his body evolving into mechanical and electrical devices. His hands were replaced by standardized, colored signals. His eyes were replaced by sensing actuators, such as microphones, pressure sensors, electromagnets, or video cameras. All that was left was to replace his brain.

Back in 2010, when all of this was much more speculative, I saw a clear parallel between the replacement of traffic cops and the potential replacement of drivers.

Over time, the driver was slowly transformed: her hands took on a steering wheel for better maneuverability; her voice was replaced by a horn; and eventually, she was sealed in a cabin and communicated with the traffic via honks or coloured lights. The driver slowly vanished, her body evolving into mechanical and electrical devices. Her hands were replaced by high precision steering mechanisms, her feet by networked cruise control. Her eyes were replaced by sensing actuators, such as GPS chips, proximity sensors, local mesh networks, or video cameras. All that was left was to replace her brain.

Badger is probably right to be skeptical that people will be wary of such technology in the U.S. But what about in China, where driver norms aren’t quite set yet, and traffic fatalities are ridiculously high? Or in Japan, where the trust in robotic automation is an article of cultural faith?

[Via The Atlantic Cities; top image: The driverless Audi that Google is developing with Stanford.]

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  • Aaron

    People seem to be agitated about handing every single vehicle over to a centralized control system. This would be both completely unfeasible and a political minefield. Google already has a car that works perfectly well in city traffic; it even yielded to pedestrians and successfully avoided a dog that ran in front of it. I don't think the future of autonomous vehicles is in a city-wide control room, it lies in each individual car. You will still be able to drive manually, cross the street on foot, and ride a motorcycle.
    We already have luxury cars that can drive themselves in traffic jams. It won't be long now.

  • Kyle Callahan

    I would think a gradual adoption of automated vehicles could work since the sensors in place could easily respond to unpredictable human moves. Volvo already builds cars capable of stopping independent of driver action, but it is only effective at lower speeds. Our vehicles would need a lot more computing power and as many sensors as there are airbags these days. Would there be a set transportation frequency for car-to-car communication to be free from interference? Could people ever learn to trust their car as it cruises toward a crowded intersection, like the one in the video above? The politics would be horrific, so it would be a long time before anything like this moved forward. Still it is fun to imagine the possibilities science and technology can bring. We would certainly all be in for the ride of a lifetime.

  • Stu

    Never, ever going to happen, unless you can automate EVERY car in a given city, eliminate pedestrian and motorcycle traffic, and come up with some effective backup solution for situations where the system fails, as it inevitably will. Imagine thousands of driverless (control-less) cars whizzing around at 200kmh in confined areas, and there's a solar-max or some other massive ionospheric discharge which even momentarily kills a few satellites. It'd be carnage! 

    Sorry, but this is NOT a good solution. Aside from anything, say I own a classic car, which could never be automated (and which I would never WANT to automate, because I enjoy actually driving) Does this system mean I could never again drive it on a public road, because there would be thousands of automated, driverless cars around which are effectively blind to my car, and unable to predict what I'll do next, because my human brain is not an algorithm? No automated system is flawless. 

  • Al

    Sorry but I can't resist saying: driverless cars exist already where you don't have to worry about a-holes in traffic, and where you can get stuff done on a little table or take it easy and read a book. They're called trains... they work great but are woefully underinvested in and so tend to be overcrowded.

    p.s. can anyone figure out what the difference between yellow and white cars is in the animation? All the cars turn yellow when on a road leading out, but some start out yellow... It's bugging me!

  • amac design

    to respond to your train comment.

    - train goes from A to B every time
    - car goes where you want/need it to

    to answer your question about the yellow cars.
    - yellow pre-intersection means the car is breaking and/or stopping before/at the intersection
    - white cars do not alter their speed
    thanks | amac

  • Jacob Ford

    As many people as I know who are skeptical (road kings and queens who can't countenance the thought of puttin their guns in the ground) there are people who, like me, get extremely excited about the thought of never again having to deal with a-holes in traffic (I'm with the author, I'm much less worried about a computer's reliability and much more willing to deal with a computer's manners than your average human driver's) and so much NEW spare time!!  It's like God himself extended the day by an hour or two (or five or six or more in some cases) if we don't have to drive anymore! I for one hope they make it legal for cars to have completely enclosed spaces. I would have a tiny office where I'd do my work in between home and work or other places I was going.
    Imagine when you can tell Siri's descendents where to go next--or to send the car, without you, to pick up your kids knowing it's exponentially safer than sending their older brother or sister or even you driving yourself!
    Technology is such a lovely distraction from the horrors of the world!

  • Chris

    This may work for passenger cars, but what happens when you throw trucks into the mix. It is rare to go through a busy intersection without seeing at least one truck or other delivery vehicle.  Will they be automated too?  

  • ken nohe

    It is actually a set of skills that you have to learn to drive in such traffic, the main one being to be "predictable" then it goes relatively smoothly... but accidents are frequent nevertheless!

    In the West, one way to solve the problem which I think is a likely outcome is far fewer cars!

  • JR

    If we slow down, we will speed up.  That's why it seems to work in 3rd world countries.  They're all riding 50cc scooters.  Plus, when you ride, you tend to pay more attention to what you and others are doing because the risks are greater.  

  • Emily

    An interesting concept in transportation, but a concerning one from the perspective of  a pedestrian. With so many lanes, even if all of the vehicles were stopped, crossing such a span of asphalt would be intimidating. Additionally, I would be afraid of higher speeds in the name of efficiency further isolate the pedestrian. And how would bikers fit into this sort of scheme? Replacing drivers could be positive, so long as we get to keep the pedestrians.

  • Kradak

    Good point. In Naples, we couldn't get across the street until we found a fat grandma to draft against. She made the decisions of when to go and how fast. NO fear.In Vietnam, my wife had to take a taxi from her hotel to the convention center even though *it*was*just*across*the*street.

    (If we want to have flying cars, we either need to master 2D driving, or develop really great computer autopilots, or both)

  • incigreen

    I agree. I think the best solution would be to build Pedestrian overpasses and underpasses. This can be used by both walkers and biker.

  • Laura

    Good point here brought up by Emily. Resonates with me as a pedestrian and cyclist...

  • Annie

    I love the idea of driver-less cars and am looking forward to their implementation, however this graphic leaves out an important aspect of intersections: pedestrian crossings.  With the current trend toward more walkable cities, I'd be curious to see what Badger's graphic would look like with pedestrian crossings factored in.

  • Erkki

    Some of those "Watch What Traffic Will Look Like When Cars Drive Themselves" turns were pretty close :) but despite that, the effectiveness was really good.