Traffic and congestion are expensive and annoying problems for any city and its people. It seems to have been getting worse for a while, too. But city planners, government officials and pioneers in the private sector are now using technology to solve longstanding problems that affect everybody equally. The benefits to the economy could be even greater than the benefit to our collective mental health.
Cars Connected to Cars Connected to Cities
It sounds like the stuff of shiny futures, but the reality of autonomous cars that talk to each other — as well as with government data systems — is already here. It might also sound dystopian until you think of the many benefits.
Technology companies are testing driverless cars in some cities as we speak. And now, connected technology will help us turn them into the “advance guard” for things like traffic accidents and potholes. By exchanging data wirelessly, our cars will soon be able to alert one another about delay-producing events and make adjustments without intervention.
The benefits extend beyond daily commuters and will certainly make life easier for road crews and infrastructure workers — not to mention trucking companies and others who transport time-sensitive goods or for whom arrival time is of particularly vital importance.
City Planners Ensure There is No More Curb Kerfuffle
Those who live out in the country might not really “get” the singular frustration of curb use in big cities. Parallel parking is enough of a nightmare, but when you factor in things like loading zones, parking meters, fire hydrants, emergency lanes and more, the picture gets complicated. In our denser cityscapes, it’s not uncommon for “curb interactions” to account for 30 percent or more of the traffic. Specifically, it’s cars looking for places to park or drop off passengers — and all of the trucks competing with them that need to unload products.
The good news is, curb jockeying isn’t a terribly difficult or expensive problem to fix — and Siemens and other interested parties think they’ve cracked it. The answer? Map the curbs digitally. If you can believe it, we used to do this sort of thing on paper. No longer.
Now, with modern mapping technology and “mobile data” to share via the cloud with city planners and economic parties, the driverless cars of the future will know when the curbs are theirs for the taking and when they’re reserved for freight shuffling and truck parking. Autonomous cars drop their passengers off at the curb by day, trucks drop off cargo at night. A problem that used to cost Washington, D.C. alone $650 million every year might soon be a thing of the past.
Traffic Lights That Aren’t Horrible (or: No Traffic Lights at All)
The only thing more obnoxious about traffic lights is how the average driver behaves around traffic lights. Like that scene out of 1984’s “Starman,” a visiting alien wouldn’t last a second in an American intersection.
To be clear, traffic lights are a great invention — they just need a retrofit for the Twenty-First century. In a pilot program in Columbus, Ohio, government vehicles collaborated with public data-sharing programs to better understand traffic flow and greatly improve the “pacing” of their city’s traffic lights. We all know the frustration of lurching from light to light down major streets in our big cities. And it doesn’t get easier when larger delivery trucks enter the mix or when construction vehicles have to move about freely. But things get even cooler from here.
Autonomous cars are going to add their “collective intelligence” to the mix and potentially help us rid ourselves of traffic signals entirely. Those dumb black boxes are meant to signal to humans — so what about when humans aren’t driving?
Sooner than you probably think, driverless cars will be able to signal to one another and anticipate intersection crossings long in advance. Instead of halting cars to allow others to proceed, driverless cars will merely alter their speeds for moments at a time to avoid collisions and create a weird sort of ballet where cars simply come and go smoothly, meshing with other traffic the way a zipper’s teeth mesh together.
The benefits here could be extraordinary. Passenger cars and large trucks alike stand to spend many fewer hours idling in traffic each year. For shipping and logistics companies, that’s a huge savings when you consider that travel of all kinds for business and industry costs, on average, $25.19 per hour per vehicle. And in terms of our environmental footprint, the gallons of gas saved in a year could be tremendous.
Why Push for Investment in “Smart” Infrastructure?
The city of the future won’t have to bend the knee to Jeff Bezos or debase itself by throwing tax money at already-profitable contractors to attract new business. If it makes the right investments in infrastructure, businesses large and small will recognize the attractiveness of a city that actively fights congestion, prioritizes different types of traffic at appropriate times of day and uses technology to watch for signs of damage and age-related decay in public structures.
We’ll say no more about the sticky topic of taxes, but it’s clear that so long as every last member of the public stands to benefit from better (or, ideally, at least functional) civic infrastructure, we’ll have to work out how to pay for it in a way that preserves public ownership of it.
Driving the Future
Even now, the impact of higher technologies on fuel savings, economic performance and general operational efficiency is being hotly debated. Ironically, while driverless cars have the potential to reduce our collective energy use by 90 percent, many of those same experts warn that we might abuse our newfound freedom to sleep or party en route and in fact drive many more miles than we did before.
However, the technologies above could save us a lot of the trouble that comes from bad planning and impatience. We’ll understand the cultural influence better later on, and probably a brand-new branch of vehicular etiquette, too, but we have to build the future before we can live in it.