Could Sensor Technology End Traffic Jams?

November 26, 2013
By
Deeter Does Wirless

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Well, we are just a couple days away from Thanksgiving, so now to the vexing problem of traffic. Thirty-eight million people are expected to be on the road for the vacation, and with that come some of the worst traffic jams of the year. But what if there were a super-smart sensor on cars that could keep traffic moving no matter what?

MIT computer science professor Berthold Horn joins us now in the studio, and professor, first of all, take us into the details. What causes traffic jams?

BERTHOLD HORN: The simplest example would be someone who suddenly accelerates or decelerates. Then the person behind them has to similarly accelerate or decelerate to avoid either running into them or having a big gap. So they’ll brake more.

Now drivers are all focused on the car in front, and even adaptive cruise control systems take into account only the car that’s ahead. And the trick is to instead also take into account the car behind you.

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CHAKRABARTI: OK, so first of all, adaptive cruise control systems?

HORN: Yes, so adaptive cruise control systems are now available in high-end cars from about a dozen or 15 automobile manufacturers, and what they do is they use typically radar or sonar to measure the distance to the car ahead and also the relative velocity, and they basically slow you down if you’re getting too close and speed you up if a gap opens so that unlike traditional cruise control, which just has a set speed, this keeps you up to the car in front.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s adaptive cruise control. But it seems as if you have come up with an idea that uses adaptive cruise control to measure both the distance to the car in front of you and behind you?

HORN: Right, so the adaptive cruise control that’s available now uses only measurements of distance and velocity of the car in front of you. And the modification would be to add a second sensor to measure the distance and velocity of the car behind you, as well, and use that information in control.

CHAKRABARTI: Now for people who get stuck in traffic a lot, I’m sure that the idea that there’s technology out there that might help this problem is very appealing to them. But what are the obstacles that you see towards, you know, implementing your idea? Because you said earlier it’s only higher-end cars that have this adaptive cruise control in them already.

HORN: Right, exactly, so that’s the key point that the radar system, which is currently used, has come down a lot in price since they started doing this, but it’s still expensive, and so it is only used at this point in high-end cars. But there are alternative sensors, and my own field is machine vision, and so we’re proposing to use a camera and computer processing instead of radar.

CHAKRABARTI: So this kind of technology, in order for it to work, has to be in just about every car, and drivers have to opt to use it, right? Like everyone has to use it in order for the system to work.

HORN: Right, so you put your finger on the other obstacle, which is, you know, the chicken and egg problem. How do you start? Because it only becomes really effective if a large fraction of the cars use that system. And then there’s the other part, which is will drivers opt to use it. Well, drivers in some cases use cruise control today, particularly out West, where roads are more open, and we do like to have control of our car.

But to be honest, in stop-and-go traffic, I would rather press a button and have the car take over because it’s stressful, and it requires constant attention. I can’t be thinking about something else or talking. And that I’d rather delegate to some automation.

CHAKRABARTI: Berthold Horn is a computer science professor at MIT. Thank you so much.

HORN: Thank you very much, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, as we said, some 38 million Americans are going to be on the road for Thanksgiving. Are you one of them? What are your tricks for coping with all that traffic? How do you deal with it? Let us know at hereandnow.org. You’re listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Article source: http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/11/25/sensors-traffic-jams

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