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New technology to ease and worsen highway congestion

Molly Wood Feb 28, 2012

If you’re like me, you’ve spent more time than seems fair stuck in traffic, scooting along inch by inch, driving at a pace that’s slower than the rate most people walk. It stinks. No fun.

Well, if it makes you feel any better, there are plenty of people working on the issue of traffic congestion and trying to find ways to make it better. I’m talking about actual traffic in cars here, not data networks. I realize we often talk about digital traffic on this show but this is real live car traffic. Bill Ford, Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, says his company is making big investments in technologies to make cars smarter and more social with each other. This means cars that can figure out which route to take to avoid traffic, cars that can reserve their own parking spots so you’re not left to patrol every sidewalk, even cars that can drive themselves.

Alex Bayen is a systems engineering professor at UC Berkeley. He says to make tomorrow’s roads manageable, you can’t just change the cars. “I think what really matters is handling more cars, and you just don’t do this by having cars talking to each other,” says Bayen, “you also do this by cars talking to smart infrastructure, like smart traffic lights, smart intersections.”

But Bayen doesn’t think we’ll just wake up one day to all the cars being perfectly linked members of a vast traffic network. “I think it’s going to roll out in several phases,” he says. “I mean the first phase is just ‘you should go to this route rather than this route because it’s better, and it’s not just better for you, but it’s better for the system.’ That’s phase one. The technology is already around the corner; it’s already rolled out in some cases. But I think phase two is even more interesting is now, ok, your car is interacting with a traffic light, and the traffic light is going to turn green when your car comes by because that’s going to improve the flow in traffic. So, it’s not like overnight, everybody’s taking their hands off the wheel and cars are driving by themselves. It’s really a gradual thing which progressively adapts as technology improves.”

The day we move out of the driver’s seat might not be far away. Nevada has already approved rules for companies experimenting with robot-driven cars and companies like Google are investing heavily in figuring out that technology. So the idea is that we read or sleep or work or goof off while the car drives us around because it’s better at avoiding traffic and accidents than we are.

Sounds nice, right?

But Bryant Walker Smith with the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) says we can address congestion but we’ll never really get rid of it.

“It could increase capacity of our existing system so more vehicles can fit on our roads today,” he says. “The other thing it could do is increase demand for that travel. If I don’t have to be in my car, or I can be focusing on other work, then I may be more likely to take longer trips, or more trips, or send my car off on its own to get a pizza. That in turn could put more vehicles on the road.”

So that’s our future on the roads: new technology to ease congestion and more congestion because of the new technology.

Also on this program a whole bunch of movies are disappearing from Netflix after the company’s contract with the Starz Network expires. I’m not saying that means you should skip school or work and just go home and watch movies all day. If you do that, that’s your business. You’re not going to peg this on me.

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