Conversant cars, roads likely in ‘The Future of Your Commute’

May 23, 2018, 8:00 AM | Updated: May 25, 2018, 8:38 am
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the future of driving in Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — Memorial Day weekend marks the start of vacation driving season, and as you sit behind the wheel on a long trip, you may wonder how much “smarter” cars and roads may get in the future.

In a perfect world, “smart vehicles” will reduce crashes and improve traffic flows. But the technology is far from perfect.

On May 12, the driver of a Tesla Model S, in semi-autonomous mode, sped at 60 mph into the back of a firetruck in South Jordan.

“That high of speed into a vehicle that’s stopped, especially a larger vehicle, she’s very lucky she didn’t have more serious injuries,” South Jordan Police Sgt. Sam Winkler said.

The woman suffered a broken foot, but days later, investigators found she used the car improperly and she received a citation.

Her Tesla ratted her out.

“About 20 minutes prior to the crash, the vehicle indicated that the driver removed her hands from the vehicle’s steering wheel, multiple times, more than a dozen times within that 20 minutes,” Winkler said.

Even if cars on autopilot lead to deadly crashes, like in Arizona and California recently, the automakers will decide what to feature inside the cockpit.

“We are having conversations with (automakers) about what they would like, and we have had conversations about what we would like back from them,” said Blaine Leonard, technology and innovation engineer with the Utah Department of Transportation.

Leonard has already pioneered a system to have traffic signals on an 11-mile stretch Redwood Road talk to Utah Transit Authority buses.

“If (a bus) is behind schedule, it sends a message to the traffic signal that says just that,” he said. “‘I’m behind schedule. Can you help me?’ The traffic signal thinks about whether it can give it a little extra green time.”

Perhaps the next step is “platooning,” Leonard said. Smart technology would send signals into vehicles that would set speeds and distances through heavy traffic and construction zones.

“We could put a lot more cars closer together at a constant speed going down that freeway lane,” he said.

Leonard suggests drivers would opt into that “public” system, or perhaps a private one that could tell them what is happening three cars — or semitrailers — ahead of them.

“Your car would know there’s a hard braking going on ahead of it, and you can take evasive action and brake before you even see brake lights, preventing a crash.”

UDOT constantly monitors data-driven safeness of Utah roads. Computer screens filled with pinpoints, graphs and charts tell Traffic and Safety Director Robert Miles where his agency could, for example, improve quality of roads and add crosswalks.

It could also “help educate people on what’s going on, on the roadways, where we have problems with people not buckling up, or people driving too quickly,” Miles said.

Data collection into the system is fast.

“Within three months, we feel like we have 95 percent of the crashes in there,” Miles said. “In the past, it could have taken a year, or a year and a half, to do that.”

Both Miles and Leonard remind us that human error is to blame in 94 percent of all crashes, especially the deadly ones.

“We think we are better drivers than we actually are,” Leonard said. “So we need to take out that human error.”

And as uncomfortable as that is, “we’re going to have to gradually get used to, and trust, various systems,” he warned.

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Conversant cars, roads likely in ‘The Future of Your Commute’