Thursday, September 1, 2016

Are self-driving cars the ‘simple solution’ to all our traffic woes?

Slow drivers, distracted drivers and generally bad drivers are people we typically blame for traffic congestion. A YouTube video published on Aug. 31 with 1.5 million views (as of press time) has a simple solution … that will never work.

The video starts by pointing out the various factors that slow down traffic, including intersections and the slow chain reaction involved with red-to-green traffic light movement and braking vehicles on the highway. Really, it makes perfect sense.

How do we solve these problems? According to the video, by changing human behavior. To be fair, the video quickly dismissed this idea as implausible as we would need 100 percent participation. Instead, it suggests we use a more practical solution: a “structurally systematized solution.”

What does that even mean? It’s code for “self-driving cars.”

Every traffic problem caused by human behavior, according to the video, can be solved with self-driving cars. When you watch the explanation, it makes perfect sense. Cars will communicate with each other using their infallible computer brain.

“The real simple solution to traffic,” as self-driving cars are explained to us. Except it isn’t.

As recent fatal crashes involving autonomous Tesla cars have proven, the technology is not there yet. At about the 4:00 mark in the video, we see a bunch of self-driving cars at a four-way intersection – with no traffic lights! – barely missing each other. It’s frightening. This scenario would play out as advertised if the car’s computer brain was infallible ... but it isn’t.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that these self-driving cars are flawless. Even then, the video’s “solution” is insanely flawed. Using the video’s own argument regarding changing human behavior against it, 100 percent of vehicles on the road would need to be self-driving in order for this work. Needless to say, that’s just as implausible as changing human behavior. Self-driving cars would need to be mandatory. That would never fly, politically or socially.

It’s a neat idea that would work in a perfect world. Alas, we live on Earth.