What the self-drivers can do

Sept. 27, 2017
Beyond adding convenience, will autonomous tech fix our roadways?

It was one of those evenings where there was a city event going on downtown, an outdoor concert that was part of a weekly series. It’s a fairly large draw for the locals and surrounding towns, depending on who’s playing.

I was driving along some blocks from it, making my way solidly around any restricted roads nearby the event. But suddenly, there it was: a three-strike situation.

There was redirected event traffic, still enough of an after-work surge, and a touch of construction on the typical stop-and-go traffic light road I was on, and everything broke. No one moved. Two blocks’ distance took more than half an hour to cover, and there was no room to maneuver out—you just had to go with it.

Air conditioning condensers in cars dripped runoff as we barely crept forward in the summer heat, and a few kids on skateboards confused things even more as they shot dangerously through the puzzle-piece array of vehicles. A guy on a sport bike fought to merge in, then pulled right back off into a business’ parking lot to avoid overheating.

It’s the saturated, “busted” point that roads of all kinds in this metro region—and many others you’ll find if you drive across the country—can easily reach. This one happened to be inside a city, but the highways connecting towns throughout the region notoriously often do the same thing, and all it takes is the slightest trigger.

Sometimes it’s actually just volume, as in roads shut down because too many cars are packed in together and pushing along too quickly and too close, and at some point, that’s it—no one’s moving at all.

Is that what we’re hoping self-driving cars can fix? It’s certainly the biggest problem on the roadways. But highway jam-ups and the tight antics of urban traffic are exactly what challenges would-be autonomous vehicles most and where they work least effectively.

Pretty much all their complements of sensors can do is detect as much as possible—and they need to be able to sense everything, not “almost everything”—and the vehicles stop when they spot obstacles so as to not run into them. Charting a way through without crunching into another car, jaywalking pedestrian, or something else means watching and interpreting the actions, and sometimes very bad and/or unannounced actions, of drivers and others on the road.

As long as manually driven cars still run, they’ll be right there along with any new vehicles that drive themselves, and that’s part of the difficulty. On the other hand, there’s those longer distances across states that tend to include more rural areas, where trucks are the primary links connecting the supply chain.

In that type of setting, the best commercial example of auto­nomous vehicle use was probably last October, when Otto’s self-driving tractor-trailer famously delivered a shipment of Budweiser beer on a 120-plus-mile trip down Interstate 25 in Colorado. That seems the likeliest use of self-driving big trucks or passenger cars: You drive the vehicle through the muddled-up local stuff and problem traffic, then flip the autopilot switch in the same wider-open spaces where you’d have popped on your cruise control in those old manual-drivers.

It promises more safety in that humans would be freed up from the long, wearying in-betweens from where drivers and loads are to where they’re trying to go. And it allures all those scratching their heads fantasizing about what they’ll be able to do with that time they won’t have to drive.

But it doesn’t do squat to fix the metro- and urban-area chaos that’s a product of oversaturation of America’s roadways.

Personally, I doubt auto­nomous vehicles will be the mobility savior many seem to hope they’ll be in solving the biggest road problems out there and not just adding convenience—unless maybe they’re flying vehicles, like Workhorse’s recently unveiled big drone that can carry two people on 70-mile trips.

With today’s density-driven logjams, we may already have squeezed all the blood from the ground transportation stone that we can.

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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