Autonomous Cars and Urban Planning


Smart Intersections

Google's self-driving car and related technologies are influencing auto design for the future. Just last week, we learned that ten more manufacturers pledged to make auto-braking a standard feature by 2022. As changes in technology change the way cars are made, how will these changes affect how cities are designed?

Researchers at MIT's Senseable City Lab have addressed this question with a concept that eliminates the need for traffic signals. Their scenario envisions a city filled with autos that talk to each other—with speeds adjusted so they can approach intersections, move through them or turn without needing to stop. This sounds great as it keeps traffic moving, and might even reduce the amount of fuel burned by idling vehicles. Nobody loves the bumper-to-bumper pace those of us in big cities often experience—whether it's in your own car, a car you share or in a taxi.

How humans interact with machines has to be a factor with any technology that affects urban planning.

But improving traffic flow at intersections solves just one problem in congested cities and assumes everything on the road is connected. Furthermore, privacy issues aside, a truly digital utopia should assume everything and everyone is seamlessly connected everywhere—where we live, work and play and all points in between. That said, how does MIT's concept change when you factor in pedestrian traffic? Or bicyclists? Mobile devices, wearables and bikes can send out the same signals autos do, but they can't control how someone walks or pedals. Can changes in urban infrastructures fix this by connecting with smart objects? Will proximity sensors be able to determine if people or other objects are at intersections and talk with connected devices? I'd love to see the next layer in this "smart intersection" because how humans interact with machines needs to be a factor with any technology that affects urban planning. This of course assumes automakers and lawmakers have already addressed the "impossible ethical dilemma of algorithmic morality”

Image: MIT Senseable City Lab

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