The NMA Foundation presents the Car of the Future weekly feature:
When you think about autonomous vehicles, you generally think about the car itself. You don’t normally think about the street environment the car will drive in. Autonomous vehicles though will also be connected vehicles—connected to other cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and to all kinds of street furniture. One of the pieces of furniture that we might not need any more though if all cars are autonomous is the traffic light.
Clemson researcher Ali Reza Fayazi recently conducted a proof-of-concept study on how an intelligent intersection could work. He claims that a four-way traffic intelligent intersection is a hundred times more efficient at letting traffic flow than currently and because cars are not idling at lights, a 19 percent fuel saving would be incurred. Traffic lights might not even be needed because cars themselves would self-correct before and during the intersection.
Left turns could also be a thing of the past when and if the world of transport becomes fully autonomous. The delivery company UPS has already tackled this problem by routing its 11,000 human-driven vehicles to avoid left turns whenever possible. Less accidents and less fuel used from idling trucks at lights allows UPS to deliver more packages per shift more efficiently and economically. Could having no left turns however be feasible in an autonomous vehicle world?
Due to the human complexity of driving a left turn, this one driving issue might never be fully mastered by AI. Scientists call this the “Theory of Mind” problem which is the human knack for guessing what other humans will do based on subtle hints such as tone of voice, body attitude and even that look in someone’s eye—something AI may never be able to master. Theory of mind is how humans know how to get out of each other’s way at airports and after crowded concerts or ball games and of course, turning left. As UPS is already demonstrating, maybe left turns won’t be needed anymore in the utopian autonomous vehicle universe.
Another problem for autonomous vehicles are streets themselves. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took a test drive at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show with Volvo’s North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers. What should have been a public demonstration of Volvo’s current technology turned into an example of how autonomous vehicles depend on well-maintained infrastructure. The problem—the technology could not find any lane markings because they were too faded to see. Humans of course can see them and if not, know where they likely should be placed.
Research engineer at Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute Paul Carlson said recently, “The maintenance levels on most of the roadway infrastructure are based on human vision, not machine vision.” Carlson compared the challenge of figuring out the infrastructure needs of autonomous vehicles is like trying to hit a moving target.
Our current human challenge is to figure out how to pay for current infrastructure needs and we are not doing that very well so far. How can we add the needs of autonomous vehicles to this mix if we can’t even afford to paint lane markings on highways, roads and streets?
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