One way to combat traffic congestion

Story highlights

  • Most of us who live or work in major urban areas are confronted with traffic congestion challenges every day
  • Steven Shladover: The convergence of wireless connectivity and automation offers great opportunities for improvement

Steven E. Shladover, program manager at the California PATH Program, researches intelligent transportation systems at the University of California, Berkeley. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Most of us who live or work in major urban areas are confronted with traffic congestion challenges every day. Recently, the Urban Mobility Scorecard estimated there is an average congestion delay of 52 hours per year per car commuter in the top 101 urban areas in the United States. This bottleneck wastes precious time and energy, raises our level of stress and causes our vehicles to emit more pollutants than if traffic flowed freely.

With the end of summer vacations approaching and children returning to school, traffic volume and congestion will be increasing noticeably in the coming weeks.
So how can we alleviate the problem?
    The convergence of two technologies -- wireless connectivity and automation -- offers great opportunities for improvement. In the long term, when the automated vehicles can be separated from the manually driven vehicles, they can be safely clustered more closely and could achieve triple the capacity of today's highway lanes.
    For most of the past century, the primary way to increase the capacity of our transportation network has been to build infrastructure -- roads, bridges, tunnels and transit lines -- at great public expense. But if we turn to information technology, we can improve our transportation system safety and sustainability.
    Government and industry have been working together for the past 15 years to develop the capability for vehicles and the roadway infrastructure to communicate information wirelessly so they can function as a well-integrated system, as most other transportation modes already do (such as rail and air travel systems). Although the initial applications for these wireless connected vehicle networks will be providing collision warnings to drivers, they can potentially deliver even greater benefits by facilitating automation of some driving functions.
    Automation of road vehicles attracted great public interest after Google announced its automated driving project in 2010, but the concepts behind automated driving date back to the late 1930s and technological development has been ongoing since the early 1950s.
    Many cars are already available with basic driving assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control (cruise control that maintains proper separation to other vehicles using radar to measure the gaps), and a few luxury vehicles offer partial automation systems that combine adaptive cruise control with automatic steering during highway driving.
    These systems enable the driver to temporarily drive with "no hands and no feet," although the driver still needs to continuously monitor the system and the driving environment for hazards that require driver intervention. During the coming years, vehicles will be offered with increasing levels of automation that will allow drivers to divert their attention to other activities (work or leisure) for portions of their trips.
    Most of the current vehicle automation systems have been designed to perceive the driving environment using remote sensors (video cameras, laser scanners or radars). These sensor systems have limited range, limited ability to distinguish the characteristics of the objects they detect, and no ability to predict the future motions of those objects.
    However, if the vehicles are able to cooperate with each other and with other road users (pedestrians and bicyclists) by use of wireless communication systems, they can develop a much more complete understanding of the driving environment.
    This type of connected automation makes it possible to anticipate traffic hazards and disturbances so the vehicles can be safely driven closer together and can smooth out traffic disturbances, eliminating the annoyance and inefficiency of "stop and go" traffic.
    Experiments with full-scale vehicles and computer simulations that our research team has conducted show the potential to double the capacity of a highway lane when all vehicles in that lane are equipped for cooperative automation.
    The same connected automation technology that can improve personal commute travel conditions can also improve the cost-effectiveness and quality of service for transit buses and heavy trucks, which are likely to gain these benefits even sooner.