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Will Smarter Cars Really Mean Less Traffic?

State and local leaders are planning for technology that could ease traffic congestion, accidents and pollution.

by Jake Thomas, The Columbian / December 29, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in traffic on a freeway surrounded by other drivers, know that it’s all because a computer isn’t driving your car.

At least that’s the reasoning of proponents of autonomous, or driverless, cars — vehicles that are driven entirely by computers and can sense and respond to their surroundings without human guidance. Proponents of the technology, which now include the federal government and an increasing number of car manufacturers, argue that humans simply are not that good at driving. They say putting computers behind the wheel will cut down on congestion, pollution and accidents.

With no clear consensus on how to address the chronically congested Interstate 5 Bridge, autonomous cars may offer a solution.

Washington state and local governments in Clark County are already laying the groundwork for a driverless future. However, don’t expect to take your hands off the wheel just yet.

Autonomous future

Once the stuff of science fiction, the technology for autonomous cars has made strides and is already here after large investments from companies such as carmaker Tesla and internet giant Google.

According to a report from the National League of Cities, Google has logged 2 million autonomous miles and set up its autonomous vehicle department as a separate company under its larger conglomerate. Companies such as Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Lyft and Daimler have also jumped in. Uber is street-testing autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, according to the report, and Ford is working with car-sharing company Maven to release a full fleet of autonomous ridesharing cars by 2021.

“While widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles is not here yet, nearly every major car manufacturer has set a deadline of producing fully autonomous cars by 2021, with China’s Baidu aiming for 2019 and Tesla aiming for the end of 2017,” reads the report.

Some predictions envision a not-so-distant future where personal cars will be obsolete. Instead, we’ll be chauffeured to work and home by autonomous cars that will safely glide past each other and pedestrians with mathematical precision.

Drunken, distracted or just plain bad driving would vanish. Accidents would drop and traffic flows would greatly improve, cutting down on congestion. There’s even been speculation that traffic signals will become obsolete.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a policy meant to guide the technology’s development. Over the summer, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order that created an interagency workgroup on autonomous vehicles and allowed for pilot programs to develop the technology and equipment. The order hailed the potential for autonomous vehicles to reduce pollution, efficiently move goods and improve mobility for the disabled and elderly.

Earlier this fall, the Madrona Venture Group, a venture capital firm, released a white paper predicting that the number of autonomous vehicles on the roads would increase significantly in the next five to 10 years. The paper proposed phasing in the technology; by 2040, only autonomous vehicles would be allowed on Interstate 5 in order to reduce congestion, emissions and accidents.

“The challenge is the technology is still sorting itself out so you’re not sure what may be needed,” said Bruce Agnew, director of transportation think tank the Cascadia Center.

In October, Agnew gave a presentation to the Washington State Transportation Commission where he suggested that the state look at testing autonomous vehicles in high-occupancy vehicle lanes or their own standalone lanes.

He said that one straightforward way Washington can start laying the groundwork for autonomous vehicles is by increasing the budget for road maintenance and making new appropriations for 6-inch wide striping on roads. He said that doing so will make it easier for the radars on autonomous cars to decipher the roadway.

Agnew said that because the trucking industry is already highly regulated and has sophisticated equipment, it could be one of the first applications for autonomous vehicles. He said that California has already tested truck platooning, where several trucks equipped with automated technology closely follow each other at a constant speed. He said Oregon will be conducting similar testing and Washington could follow suit.

“I hesitate to predicate the timeline for autonomous vehicles showing up on the interstate, because it’s changing so rapidly,” he said.

Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, said there are still many questions about how the technology will be implemented and there has yet to be a statewide discussion on the way forward.

“There are a lot of piecemeal things in place,” she said.

Autonomous cars in Clark County?

There are five levels of automation, based on how much control the driving system has over the vehicle. Local jurisdictions are taking some steps to accommodate cars that have some features of automated cars.

Rob Klug, a traffic signals manager with Clark County, said the county will use a $50,000 federal grant to install a software module that will collect data on its 110 traffic signals. He said that data will have applications for connected cars, which have internet access as well as some features of an automated car.

Klug said companies such as Oregon-based Traffic Technology Services Inc. will send the data to car companies such as Audi and BMW. The companies will then feed that data into a car’s dash to enable hands-free driving or allow the driver to know if an upcoming signal is about to change. He said the technology could be used to form a partnership between the county and trucking companies to expedite the movement of goods.

“Everything we are doing is keeping an eye on what the future holds,” he said.

Trung Vo, a senior traffic engineer with the city of Vancouver, said in an email that the city’s near-term efforts are aimed at connected cars. He said that the city is considering a legal process and agreement where vendors could access traffic-signal data in their technology.

Bob Hart, a project manager with the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, said the council will be updating its plan in the next year, and it could include policies on autonomous vehicles.

“The plan goals don’t change but how autonomous cars affect that we really don’t know the answer yet,” he said.

Moving forward

In December, a committee tasked with restarting talks with Oregon about replacing the I-5 Bridge had its first meeting. The committee was created by a bill passed by the state Legislature earlier this year. So far, Oregon hasn’t appointed anyone.

Proponents of a third bridge across the Columbia River have argued that replacing the I-5 Bridge won’t relieve congestion. Earlier this year, Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said driverless cars could solve congestion and eliminate the need for a third bridge.

“The reality is we are not going to be widening freeway lanes in the future,” said Agnew.

Autonomous cars, Agnew said, could provide a solution. He said they can safely maintain shorter distances between each other and allow roads to handle a larger volume of vehicles that would be managed through algorithms and computers.

Hart said that while autonomous vehicles have the potential to make roads safer, he said they could create more congestion. He said they may encourage people to live farther from work and drive more. He also said there are questions about where the cars will park or if they will return home when not needed.

“I think there is a lot of debate right now on the congestion side,” he said.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said legislative committees have received presentations on autonomous cars.

“I suspect that some of the safety features and warning systems being built into newer cars are moving us in that direction where they are providing us a margin of safety that we didn’t have,” she said.

Among other barriers, she said, not everyone can afford these newer cars and many will continue to hang on to older automobiles, which she said includes her family.

©2017 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.