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Autonomous Vehicles And Big-City Problems

4 min read
Can fleets of really autonomous vehicles mitigate 20th-century problems in cities, such as pollution, congestion and too much space allocated for cars rather than for people and essential services?

Driverless or self-driving cars have only been seen in sci-fi movies, but these ‘futuristic’ automonous vehicles (AV) may soon be a reality on our roads. AVs, capable of sensing their environment and moving with little or no human input, are now being tested on public roads in different parts of the world, and are expected to beavailable to the public in some capacity within the next decade.

As this happens, advocates surmise that AVs may engender several benefits for riders, the general public, and society at large.

They Can Decrease Traffic Congestion 
Having fleets of AVs on our roads could help reduce traffic jams. This is brought about by better ‘communication’ between the cars as opposed to human drivers.

A 2018 project by Cambridge University’s department of Computer Science and Technology demonstrated that a fleet of driverless cars working together to keep traffic moving smoothly can improve overall traffic flow by at least 35%. The researchers programmed a small fleet of miniature robotic cars to drive on a multi-lane track and observed how traffic flow changed when one of the cars stopped. When the cars were not driving cooperatively, any cars behind the stopped car had to halt or slow down and wait for a gap in the traffic, as would happen on a real road. A queue quickly formed behind the stopped car and overall traffic flow was slowed.

However, things were different when the cars were communicating with each other and driving cooperatively. As soon as one car stopped in the inner lane, it sent a signal to all the other cars. Cars in the outer lane that were in immediate proximity of the stopped car slowed down slightly so that cars in the inner lane were able to quickly pass the stopped car without having to stop or slow down significantly.

Additionally, when a human-controlled driver was placed on the ‘road’ with the autonomous cars and moved around the track aggressively, the other cars gave way to avoid the driver, thus improving safety.

“Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving in cities, but there needs to be a way for them to work together,” concluded the study’s co-author Michael He, an undergraduate at St John’s College who designed the algorithms for the experiment. For this to happen, manufacturers need to develop cars that can communicate with each other effectively, chipped in his co-author Nicholas Hyldmar, an undergraduate at Downing College, who designed much of the hardware.

Networking AVs to travel closer together at higher speeds than human-operated vehicles can safely do so would also help increase the pace of traffic and de-escalate traffic jams.

They Can Free Up Parking Space 
Given that fleet-owned AVs would remain in operation most of the day, dropping off passengers and moving on, they would require far fewer parking spaces than

individually owned vehicles. This means land allocated for car parks can be freed up for other uses, such as for parks or housing.

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, technology will allow AVs to travel closer together, so they will take up less lane space. Urban planners propose that cities could use the extra space for bike lanes and wider sidewalks, making walking and biking safer, thus encouraging the adoption of healthier lifestyles.

They Can Reduce Pollution
When it comes to lowering carbon emissions, car manufacturers have a part to play. Constructing electric models that are connected to a green power grid rather than turning conventional models into AVs would help reduce carbon emissions, suggest experts. Indeed, many AVs are being designed to be entirely electric, which bodes well for cutting emissions and air pollution.

Fewer vehicles on the road would also lower vehicle emissions, assuming AVs drive fewer miles in aggregate than the human-operated vehicles they replace.

Clearly, there is potential for AVs to mitigate a number of big-city problems, such as traffic congestion, air pollution and congested land space. But the extent to which that happens will depend on how they are constructed and programmed as well as on how people choose to utilise them.