Stop signs and traffic lights could become a thing of the past if autonomous vehicles take over as the primary mode of personal road transport.
The prediction comes from University of Texas computer science professor Peter Stone, who is the lead developer of a new autonomous intersection management system designed for next-generation driverless cars.
Stone says cars driven by computer systems would not need to follow traffic signs and signals as we know them today, and insists the entire traffic grid would benefit from ‘virtual traffic controllers’ that would instead manage each individual vehicle.
“When a car gets close to the intersection, it calls ahead and says, 'I want to go through the intersection’. The intersection manager says either yes or no. It keeps track of the reservations it grants and makes sure it doesn't give permission to other cars that would conflict with them,” Stone told technology website PC World.
The system has a number of obvious benefits. Cars would not be forced to sit at a red light if it was safe to drive through, intersections could be managed to assist emergency services vehicles navigate traffic as quickly as possible, and lane directions could be changed dynamically to improve peak-hour flow.
Stone admits the system is not completely failsafe, and says factors like vehicle breakdowns would still have the potential to cause crashes. But he said that with 90 per cent of car crashes currently the result of driver error, autonomous vehicles would still be considerably safer at intersections than conventional cars.
Autonomous cars are closer to reality than many people may think.
The next-generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class – due to launch in 2013 – will reportedly feature an autonomous driving mode that allows drivers to let go of the wheel and pedals in traffic at speeds below 40km/h.
Audi is also developing a traffic jam assistant system for its flagship A8 that is designed to take over at speeds up to 60km/h. Audi’s system is set to hit the market before the middle of the decade.
And while there are no plans for commercialisation at this stage, Google’s driverless car is one of the better-known autonomous projects, having completed in excess of 225,000km of testing with minimal human intervention.