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Technology Can Help Reduce Traffic Congestion

Baruch Feigenbaum
February 29, 2012, 9:43am

As first reported in The Wall Street Journal automakers are using the power of technology to reduce road congestion. This technology can help reduce traffic congestion and accidents. While fully automated cars will not arrive tomorrow, adaptive technology that assists the driver may become widely available.

Ford, Volkswagen and BMW are three automakers with big plans:

For instance, the auto maker (Ford) will invest in systems for its vehicles that will lead to cars that avoid traffic jams, reserve parking spaces and, under certain conditions, drive themselves, in an effort to cut down on global gridlock. The company also is moving to expand the use of crash-avoidance technology and will broaden its collaboration with car-sharing companies such as Zipcar Inc.

Mr. Ford—who has been speaking out for the past two years about the need to address urban traffic—envisions a future in which fully autonomous cars are connected to a database that coordinates automobile travel with public transit and other transportation methods and parking. Mr. Ford wouldn't say how much money the company will invest in these efforts. But last year, Ford said it doubled its investment in vehicle-to-vehicle communications and created a 20-member task force to help implement the technology in its vehicles.


Other auto-makers are exploring ways to address the problem. Some are working on developing standards for technology to allow vehicles to signal each other on the road in order to avoid collisions and feed more information to systems designed to minimize highway congestion. BMW AG has launched a fund to invest in mobility start-ups to gain access to new technology and ideas. 

"We think that the technology we are coming up with will help us avoid gridlock," said Wolfgang Steiger, Volkswagen AG's director of future technology. Mr. Steiger said it is likely that major cities will react to current traffic through development planning and public transit, lessening the problems. 

There are actually two concepts involved. The first is the possibility of driverless cars. While driverless cars may seem more science fiction than fact, some of the technology is already available. According to several sessions at the past Transportation Research Board conference, Google has driven several cars more than 150,000 autonomous miles and successfully lobbied Nevada to legalize driverless cars. The short-term goal is to reduce the number and severity of crashes through intermittent automated braking or steering. Automated cars may also improve productivity by reducing congestion and crashes. But completely automated cars are some years away. Transitioning to driverless cars will have Technological, Economic, Insurance, Psychological, Sociological, Legal and Political issues 

Driverless cars are only prototypes and the technology is very expensive. The system has a few glitches; the technology that guides Google’s cars get confused in certain types of driving conditions. This could be dangerous in real-world conditions. As the average vehicle on the road today is ten years old, replacing all the vehicles with driverless cars could take 30 years. And that assumes government action and a starting date of tomorrow. There might be safety issues if passenger operated and machine operated cars are on the same highways.

The second concept is vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Various studies have found vehicle-to-vehicle communication can improve emergency vehicle responses by reducing travel times to the emergency room, creating a system that alerts drivers when they are too tired to drive, and lessening the amount of pollution from vehicles. While totally automated cars are not currently realistic, advanced safety and technology features built into the GPS system can improve the driving experience today.

Technology by itself cannot solve all of our transportation challenges. Automation is no short-term replacement for new highways, cost-effective transit service, and other safety research. But technology is a small part of the solution. Any new vehicles that can brake to avoid a crash or route its driver around traffic congestion is one part of the solution.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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