Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Car To Traffic Light: "Turn Green"

Anybody out there read Robert A. Heinlein's Methuselah's Children? I read it as a teenager, and have been drawn back since, because it's such a creative and visionary sci fi novel, full of the unbelievable, and yet full of the completely possible at the same time. I remember being fascinated by his concept of an automobile/infrastructure interconnection that went far beyond just tires meeting pavement. Drivers entering the highways could turn the operation of their cars over to a traffic management system, and a central control would "drive" them to their destination. The system could take into account all the other cars and destinations and speeds and routes, and plan out the best possible combination, picking the lanes and turns, when to accelerate and when to slow, putting everything together to let everyone arrive at their destination in the fastest and safest way possible, with the added bonus of a chance to take a nap en-route. When it was time to leave the highway, control was switched back over to the human driver to take those last few side streets where traffic was less of an issue. (This was probably just to give the humans the illusion that their lives weren't being run by a computer.)

I found the notion of the road driving the car absolutely fascinating, and rather desirable. Of course, there are a lot of people who really enjoy driving, and might not take too kindly to giving up control, and you'd have to have a lot of faith that the system could handle the load and that it wouldn't suddenly break down, stranding a highway full of motorists, or worse, crashing all the cars. On the other hand, how many of us haven't driven home late at night, fighting sleep over miles of Interstate, and longed for the ability to take a snooze and still cover ground at the same time? No more accidents from drivers falling asleep at the wheel would be good. Wouldn't it also be a good thing for the perennial cellphone addict to just go ahead and concentrate on the conversation when Buffy calls to talk nail polish, or Johnson calls to finalize the big merger details? It would be better than having workaholics trying to dig through a pile of documents and make a left turn without signaling at the same time, don't you think? Parents of teenagers might also really like the notion of their kids having to plug in a destination and let the system do the driving, instead of trusting their kids and vehicles to the judgement of drivers temporarily inflicted with HIDIOUS--Hormonally Induced Decision Impairment Of Underage Scatterbrains. (Yes, I do know hideous isn't spelled that way, but I gave it my best shot. If you can do better leave it in the comments.)

I can think of all sorts of reasons why a computer/road/car symbiosis would be bad, but also any number of reasons why it would be good. It doesn't really matter, though, since we have no such system, and unless sci fi becomes reality again, we aren't likely to, are we? Okay, you know I'm not just teasing you, and this has to be going somewhere, so why don't I just cut to the chase? Nissan is testing a system, in the Kanagawa prefecture in Japan, that, while it doesn't quite live up to Heinlein's vision of automated driving, still takes us a significant step in that direction, by getting the infrastructure and the cars talking to each other. From Gizmag:

March 15, 2007 Nissan’s intelligent transportation system (ITS) project, which employs vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to enable synchronized communication between vehicles and traffic light signals, is about to begin the next test-phase. Nissan is installing the advanced traffic signal infrastructure within its Nissan Technical Center in Kanagawa to collect real-world vehicle data from several hundred employee cars participating in the project. The new advanced traffic system is designed to reduce accidents as well as ease traffic congestion, leading to improved on-the-road fuel consumption.
Nissan certainly has a lot of goals in designing a system that lets traffic lights and cars communicate. Besides reducing accidents and traffic congestion, Nissan is looking to lower CO2 emissions, by enabling cars to use less gas, and as we all know using less gas is a valuable aim in its own right. All things considered, this traffic light system is a pretty perceptive and creative way to go about achieving those ends, especially as regards fuel consumption. What takes a lot of fuel? Acceleration. What makes cars have to accelerate? Among other things, stopping at traffic lights. (Unless the driver just wants to sit there when the light turns green, which does occasionally happen.) What would make for less stopping at traffic lights? Having cars announce that they are coming, and from what direction, so the signals can be turned red or green depending on the flow of traffic. That's where Nissan's system is headed. Spiffy, huh?

There are just so many positives to the idea, not the least of which is getting us all to our destinations quicker, and with less grump-factor. Hasn't everybody been frustrated at sitting at red lights when there is no other traffic, just because the lights are timed that way? Even the little sensors they have now on some signals make you come up and stop at the red light before it registers your presence, and by then the frustration and gas usage are already written in the history books (very long boring ones.) It would be so cool if the car could warn the signals ahead of time that you were coming, clearing the way for your unhindered progress toward your destination.

What they are doing in Kanagawa is gathering data from employees' cars, on a limited infrastructure that they put on their Kanagawa campus, to work out the kinks before expanding the system to work on a larger scale. Their plans include public roads eventually:

This next phase of Nissan’s ITS research aims to optimize communication between vehicles and traffic signals to create an advanced traffic system where traffic signals operate in tandem with the vehicle-data input according to varying traffic conditions. Nissan hopes to help reduce traffic accidents and road congestion. Looking ahead, the company will continue working closely with the relevant government agencies in bringing the current experiment onto public roads under the existing ITS project in Kanagawa.
Now, I know that having the lights change to adapt to traffic conditions isn't exactly like having the road drive your car, but it's a cool first step, don't you think? Heinlein released Methuselah's Children as a magazine serial in 1941, and then rewrote and republished it in 1958. I wonder if he figured we'd have made more progress toward the future he envisioned by now, with fully automated driving whisking us from place to place, or if he really only saw it as fantasy, or maybe whether he would figure we were right on schedule. Whichever it is, I'm pleased as punch with the progress, and hope Nissan's system is a smashing success--although, maybe smashing isn't the right word, since that's part of what they're trying to avoid.