Autonomous driving in 2018

Traffic jams are mostly the result of the behaviour of drivers. Time to sack the human drivers. Gently but fast.

Anyone who spends time on the road is familiar with the most common of situations on the highway: the traffic jam. In Holland we don’t necessarily seem to need an accident or road maintenance or anything like that to create a queue.
We can make them emerge spontaneously wherever a concentration of vehicles is present.

You don’t have to be an expert to locate the source of the problem. It’s the drivers! This – of course – is nothing new, human error is as old as Eve. Questions should be: why are we not taking any measures to resolve the problem? No-one likes traffic jams, the economic costs are enormous, it’s probably in the top regions of most people’s annoyances list because it consumes precious time better spend elsewhere. No wonder every political party every now and then promises to bring a solution. If the immigration debate calms for a moment, it is likely to reemerge on the political agenda. Usually more tarmac, wider roads and a more fairly billing system is promised. But those things will not solve the traffic jams.

Dismiss the human being

The only sustainable solution is to remove the human from the drivers seat. Romantic or middle aged men will probably ague against it (usually they themselves are terrific drivers, unlike those morons causing the traffic jams), but that’s just denial. If machines would do the driving, traffic jams would largely be an irritation of the past. So why not do it? The technology necessary for fully autonomous vehicles is evolving fast as we speak. At this point in time the driverless cars are not yet functional on public roads, but the deployment of this technology is a matter of time.

Like most contemporary technologies, the robotic control of vehicles consist of two components: the hardware and the software. It is clear that the software is still being developed and that it will take a while for these systems to reach the point where they could be safely deployed on public roads. However, the hardware side of the story is more or less final. Every car will need a GPS device and a set of sensors to ‘see’ the surroundings of the car and the traffic movements its software will have to anticipate. And of course the software will need hardware to be able to affect the controls of the car, like steering, breaking, etc.

This complete hardware package, necessary to enable autonomous robotic cars in the future can already be fitted to new cars. The software can follow later and be uploaded tot the car’s computer in a blink, or a separate computer unit can be installed later and attached to the hardware controls and sensors. What we should do is determine a standard for the sensors and other hardware parts needed for autonomous driving, and make this package mandatory for all new cars in the EU. Existing cars can be upgraded with special packages of sensors and hardware controls from now on.

Phasing the implementation

If we start outfitting our cars with the hardware part of the technology, by the time the software development is finished, we can immediately implement the technology on our road system and get rid of the traffic jams. The software can be uploaded to the cars and activated. Instant result and a ready-to-use technology immediate after completion.

Of course, the normal thing to do is wait until the technology (software and hardware) is fully developed, tested and ready for the consumer market. At that point arguing will start over interfaces, regulations, liability and whatever more. Analysis will then show that it will take approximately 10 years for the technology to become available on 70% of all vehicles or something like that. And then there will be the question of mixing autonomous vehicles with human drivers on the same routes etc. And you can follow all these discussions on the radio. While sitting in a traffic jam or course.

Robot-ready cars

But let’s do it differently this time. Let’s make the hardware package mandatory for all new cars from as soon as 2015 on. That gives the automotive industry over a year to agree on interfaces for the electronics, sensors etc. Then the legislation department can have a look at it all and production can start. Upgrade kits for existing models will soon follow.

And during all this, the development of the software continues and test vehicles will emerge in our cities. As soon as testing is finished, the new software can be implemented in production cars, tested and debugged and then uploaded to the public. We would now have a situation where all cars have a drive by wire system that enables them to be driven autonomously and the software to do it.

No more traffic jams!

And now we do the big trick: we activate legislation making it compulsory for any vehicle on the highway to be driven by a computer. If you still want to drive yourself, you can use the B-routes and get to your destination without a problem. You can even get a fair reduction on your vehicle taxes as far as I’m concerned. But if you want to use the system of highways, you will have to hand over command over your vehicle to your cars software and relax for a while. Listen to the radio, look out of your window or make a phone call. Everything you do today in the traffic jam, except you will be moving at a speed 200km/h as part of a set of platooning cars while doing it.

Published 01-08-2011