With the development of a traffic management system, research scientists believe they've solved a major part of the puzzle to making fully automatic, self-driving cars the norm on American highways.
"A future where sitting in the backseat of the car reading our newspaper while it drives us effortlessly through city streets and intersections is not that far away," says Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His team's Autonomous Intersection Management (AIM) system could someday replace traditional stop signs and traffic lights, he says.
Instead of sitting at traffic lights or stopping at stop signs, onboard computers in autonomous cars would radio ahead a "reservation" to an intersection manager—essentially a computer at each intersection. The intersection manager then lets the car know which path to take. Often, cars won't have to stop or even slow down at intersections.
In practice, the intersections appear to be terribly unsafe—a video model Stone named "insanity" shows a computer model where dozens of cars are zooming through a four-way intersection at a time, barely missing each other. But it's controlled chaos, he says. Despite its dangerous looks, Stone says the system will be much safer and more efficient than human drivers.
"Without sacrificing safety at all, we can get a lot more efficiency and less traffic delay," he says. Watching other cars whiz by at full speed just feet from your vehicle might not sound appetizing, but Stone says once people clear a "mental hurdle," it'll become the norm. "Can we do better than human drivers? That's not really a high bar to clear ... I believe they will be significantly safer than human drivers. They won't drive drunk, suffer from road rage, or text while driving."
Stone and his team have tested a "mixed reality" version of his system—a fully automated car successfully navigated and avoided virtual cars on a test track. Next, his team will test miniature, driverless cars in a lab before moving on to real-car road tests.
Lawmakers see a bright future for driverless cars as well. Nevada's legislature passed a law in June requiring the state's Department of Motor Vehicles to develop regulations that will allow autonomous vehicles on state highways. The Nevada bill sees a future where "motor vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, sensors and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator." Lawmakers in Florida are considering a similar measure.
Others are also starting to see the potential of automated cars. Google's driverless car has been operating in traffic since 2010 and dozens of other automated cars are being tested.
"I've told people it's going to happen, not 50 years in the future, soon," Stone says. "Now people are just starting to wrap their heads around it."
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