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Traffic control in a world of driverless cars

Traffic control in a world of driverless cars

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Although only a few driverless cars are even in testing mode, researchers are already considering how to rework traffic intersections to integrate the computerized vehicles.

Four driverless cars approach a four-way stop: how will they decide who has the right of way without waving their hands and flashing their lights?

According to Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, such interactions will completely disappear. Furthermore, traffic regulation will become even more streamlined as more driverless cars hit the road. Even complicated intersections, such as traffic lights, will have finely-tuned control to keep traffic moving and prevent collisions.

"[W]e won’t need traffic lights at all (or stop signs, for that matter)," wrote Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities of his work. "Traffic will constantly flow, and at a rate that would probably unnerve the average human driver."

Stone has modeled how driverless cars progressing down a 12-lane road would move through an intersection, with each vehicle tracking the others to create the optimal movement with no human interception. You can watch the animation here:

The yellow cars in the animation are human-piloted vehicles -- which of course raises the question of how to actually integrate people, including cyclists and pedestrians, into the picture. All the cars will be tracked wirelessly, of course; will people and cyclists additionally require wireless tags for tracking? Badger wrote:

Those human-driven cars would have to wait for a signal that would be optimized based on what everyone else is doing. And the same would be true of pedestrians and bike riders. Stone says the system is designed to have flexibility under the assumption not all decisions would be made by computers alone.

Photo: Amanda Erickson/Vimeo

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure