Computers May Control Intersections for Self-driving Cars

by Joab Jackson, IDG News Service  

University of Texas at Austin researchers have developed a smart traffic intersection that can manage the flow of autonomous vehicles. The intersections of the future will not rely on stoplights or stop signs. Instead, when cars are driven by software, they could be managed by virtual traffic controllers, which stay in close contact with the automobiles as they approach the intersection, said Peter Stone, a professor of computer science at The University of Texas at Austin.

At least from a certain perspective, it is unusual that humans still drive their own vehicles, Stone explained. Other forms of mechanized transportation, such as airplanes, boats and railroad locomotives, have autopilot capabilities.

Using computers and sensor systems, autonomous vehicles could handle much of the routine navigation that humans now do. Autonomous cars could get their occupants to their destinations more quickly and be safer, advocates say. Such self-driving technology is still nascent, though organizations such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) and Google are aggressively funding research in the area. And at least one state, Nevada, has already approved the use of autonomous vehicles on its roads.

Professor Peter Stone says intersections of the future will manage vehicles with virtual traffic controllers, which stay in close contact with the automobiles as they approach the intersection.

The researchers created a demonstration system for managing autonomous vehicle traffic in road intersections. Each intersection has a computer that coordinates all of the traffic in the most efficient way possible, and each car has a software agent that communicates with upcoming intersections. In the prototype system, a self-driving car takes instructions from the intersection manager as it approaches the intersection, waiting for other cars to go through the intersection before it passes through.

The system can be modified to work with both autonomous and human-driven cars. The researchers say it also could ensure that approaching emergency response vehicles can get through as quickly as possible, or participate in citywide traffic-shaping efforts, which could help reduce congestion overall. “We can prove that as long as all the cars follow the protocol we defined, then there will not be accidents,” Stone says.  Report.

DCL: There’s a lot of sophisticated event processing going on in such systems. Would be interesting to know more about this aspect of the work.

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