There is a common misconception that there are too many cars on the road and the roadways simply do not have the capacity so we need to build more lanes.
Not true and studies led by Professor Yuki Sugiyama of Nagoya University which were published in the New Journal of Physics in 2008 show that it is human propensities for variable speeds that cause major chain reactions resulting in traffic jams. Mathematician Dr. Gábor Orosz of the University of Exeter says, “Many researchers believe that the effect of spontaneous jam formation (caused by tiny fluctuations above a critical traffic density) is the main reason for traffic jams and this view is supported by Professor Sugiyama.”
Some of my friends and family have heard me discussing the now defunct DARPA Grand Challenge competition and the need to get humans away from driving. We wasted a total of $115 billion in 2009 in the United States while stuck in traffic. Human “errors” have caused an average of 37,104 deaths per year in the U.S.A. from 1994 through 2009 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Think about that, what kind of uproar would occur if there were 200 plane crashes in one year causing that many deaths? Every single year. People would go ballistic. Constituents would call and write their elected officials demanding action, Bill O’Reilly would aggressively talk through the bullet points, John King would be using some cool interactive, digital map to analyze the data, Dan Rather would do a hour-long special, Rachel Maddow would politely interrogate an industry official, and people would go off the deep-end on Internet blogs.
Google has decided to address this problem with an internal project, funded entirely by themselves. I applaud them and wish them only the best in this endeavor. Seriously, I look forward to the day that I can read the news or eat a bagel while hurtling toward my destination. Americans can avoid driving today using mass transit but that only works when you live in a dense urban area or within a block or two of a bus stop. Anything else requires driving to the mass transit parking lot first and that requires the driver to be skilled and paying attention, which we are apparently terrible at doing.
The state of Nevada has become the first in the nation passing a law allowing autonomous vehicles. From the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles comes this statement: “Nevada is the first state to embrace what is surely the future of automobiles,” Department of Motor Vehicles Director Bruce Breslow said. “These regulations establish requirements companies must meet to test their vehicles on Nevada’s public roadways as well as requirements for residents to legally operate them in the future.”
California Senator Alex Padilla of Pacoima has proposed similar legislation for that car-centric state. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “If we can utilize state-of-the-art technology to make cars and therefore our roads safer, I think we have an obligation to pursue that,” Padilla said. I applaud his efforts and our state should be leading the nation, not trailing.
For as much as I look forward to handing over the driving responsibility to a series of computers (don’t worry, it appears the direction is that we can always override the computer unlike the Johnny Cab), most others are not ready. Dig deep down, are you really ready to hand over the wheel? I suspect this technology will take a full generation or maybe two before it can become ubiquitous.