The hub of the future will take this to an extreme - accumulating all the data across a metropolis and plan traffic loads and optimise routes accordingly. It will also send commands back to the vehicles about when to safely enter an intersection, and what speed to hold to minimize stop-start driving.
Meanwhile the cars will also talk to each other, using vehicle-to-vehicle communication, constantly checking their environments and positions relative to other cars around them.
Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is already in development. In 1999, the United States Congress set aside a region of the 5.9 GHz radio frequency band – already used for wireless – specifically for the purpose. And a host of manufacturers are already developing applications.
The trial being run in Ann Arbor also points towards the type of application that could become standard. For example, drivers get an audible warning if they try to change lane with a car in their blind spot, or if the car in front of them brakes hard and the driver doesn’t seem to notice. The car can also give warnings at blind corners and junctions that another vehicle is about to pull out.
“When multiple vehicles are communicating with each other, when there is slowing, there is plenty of time to communicate that to cars behind so they can start braking earlier,” says Professor Eskandarian.
This type of communication, he says, “will really solve a lot of the problems” that result in severe crashes.
No licence, no problem
Cars that talk to each other can also match their speeds, and drive more closely together without risk of the car in front suddenly braking. As a result, many envisage the idea of “car platooning” that will link together cars on high-speed highways to travel faster, more safely, and using less space. Various trails of this technology are already taking place, with one of the most advanced run by an EU consortium called Satre, which demonstrated trains of vehicles travelling at speeds of up to 90km/h sometimes travelling just 4m apart.
Lane markings will be unnecessary when cars can accurately determine their own position using an inbuilt array of sensors, radar and laser-range finders, meaning a much more fluid use of road space. Currently, some cities dedicate lanes on busy roads or bridges to funnel traffic into the city in the morning rush hour, and out of the city in the evening. In the future the changeovers could happen more quickly and more often to dynamically adjust to traffic flow.
Rebuilding and redefining the road infrastructure may also brign with it new opportunities. For example, researchers at Stanford university in the US have been experimenting with roads that continually charge electric cars as they drive along. The system uses magnetic coils buried in the road that automatically couple with another coil on the bottom fo the car. Such arrays could be built into future roads as they are wired up to the sensors and systems they will need.
Finally, these new roadways could also allow mixed use roads, allowing trains and trams to easily share information between them, allowing them to cohabit on the roads.
As a driver, this new system may sound horribly confusing. But, perhaps the most radical prediction about the rise of these new roads is that humans will barely do any of the driving. Instead, we will be asked to put our faith in the system.
“What will a driver’s licence mean?” asks Prof Eskandarian.
“All you need is to be able to operate something like a GPS to input your origin and destination, and the rest will be taken care of autonomously. We don’t need a pilot’s licence to ride on an aircraft.”
Asking people to trust the technology will be a huge obstacle. But it is not the only bump in the road. The cost of this infrastructure will be significantly higher and will require huge investment form governments.
But Prof Eskandarian believes it will slowly creep into everyday life. First of all, we may see a single lane dedicated to autonomous vehicles, the way they currently are for busses or carpools. At the same time cars will gradually become more and more intelligent, sharing more and more information with each other and the road around them. Then decades from now, the road system will be indistinguishable from the one we drive on today.
Perhaps they will come just in time to stop Los Angeles grinding to a halt again.