In Autonomous Cars, Intersections Aren't For The Meek


Here’s a cold, hard, dose of reality for you - sooner or later the roads will be populated by autonomous cars, and those of us clinging to our manual-transmission, techno-sparse dinosaurs will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

As The Atlantic Cities reminds us, the bulk of the technology necessary to support self-driving cars already exists. Were it not for insurance companies, the legal profession and those of us desperately clinging to antiquated technology, driverless cars could probably be implemented in the next decade.

There’s no denying that computers are better at complex tasks than humans, and computers never suffer from hangovers, insomnia or breakups with significant others. Even at three a.m., a computer is ready, willing and able to give its undivided attention.

Driving in autonomous cars, then, won’t resemble driving as we know it today. Linked cars won’t have to follow a two second rule, and things like traffic lights and stop signs will be relegated to antique stores. On paper, that sounds like a good thing, but put it into video form and it becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas, began thinking of intersections and driverless cars back in 2003. Working with then-doctoral-student Kurt Dresner, the pair created the computer model you see here, which can best be described as organized chaos. Like making sausage, it isn’t pleasant to watch.

In the simulation, cars in yellow are under the control of human operators. White cars are computer-controlled, and it appears that all cars must have computer guidance to safely navigate intersections. Where pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcycle riders fit into this is anyone’s guess, but the model doesn’t appear to leave much margin for error.

Perhaps we’re narrow-minded, but we can’t help think about “what-ifs” that would potentially disrupt traffic flow. What happens when a car suffers a mechanical failure approaching an intersection? What if a dog runs out into traffic? What if someone hacks  into inter-car communications and uploads bad data?

Maybe we’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey too many times, but we’re not ready to hand over full control of our transportation to computers just yet.
 
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