One day, maybe, you’ll drive as usual and stop at a red light, as usual. You’ll take the opportunity to take a peek at the car next to you and the guy behind the wheel, if there’s a wheel at all, will be watching Netflix. His car will drive itself, as will many others around you. It’s going to be a bumper-to-bumper mix of robots and humans.
Self All the cars were robots, maybe we didn’t even need a traffic light. Self-driving vehicles would simply send their vectors to each other, and collective computation would choreograph their passage through the intersection in a nimble, mechanical ballet. But he throws a few meatbags in there fighting for pole position and—well, every flicker from green to red becomes a car crash waiting to happen. You it might be able to get a testosterone-fueled human driver out of the way in an SUV, but self-driving cars will never see it coming.
Unless you’re in the digital paradise conjured up by Ali Hajbabaie, a civil engineer at North Carolina State University. Hajbabaie envisions a state of complete harmony between humans and machines, a chimerical intersection where we all get along. He relies on a single technological trick: an ingenious hack of the traffic ecosystem. When the light changes, it is neither red nor yellow nor green. It is white and white means: “Robots, go! Humans, follow!”
The big idea here is that self-driving cars aren’t the problem. It’s not their fault that they crash into police cars, exhibit strange flock behavior and go on strike. What autonomous vehicles need, it is thought, is smarter streets. Our roads are designed for human drivers. Hajbabaie wants to rewire the traffic infrastructure to control the flow of both people AND robot. “The ultimate goal,” he says, “is to bring connected self-driving car technology into traffic control systems, to make intersections safer and more environmentally friendly.”
Many traffic lights and their timing are already computer controlled. But in Hajbabaie’s futuristic vision, cars, especially self-driving ones, would communicate wirelessly with those computers, with each other, and possibly even with people’s cellphones. It’s known as “Vehicle-to-Everything” or V2X, and it’s key to Hajbabaie’s plan. Its “white-phased intersections” would snap the robotic cars to take the lead. They would enter intersections first, updating each other on their trajectories and altering course as needed to avoid collisions. Human drivers would have lagged behind in what traffic-flow theorists call “platoons,” comforted by the fact that the white light tells everyone — and everyone — when and where to move. And if things start to go off the rails, whether it’s humans or robots messing up, the whole thing automatically reverts to the red/green light.
In simulations, the benefits of white lights show up when only 10% of the cars on the road are robots. (Hajbabaie and his team don’t just make digital models, they also have 15 toy-sized cars, each about a foot long and equipped with cameras and lidars, that can outrun white-phase rhythms.) “In our tests, we observe around 3% reduction in travel times,” says Hajbabaie. As self-driving cars enter the market, speed at Hajbabaie intersections increases and fuel consumption decreases. Turn on the white light and we are merging on the road to the future.
Red/Green versus Blue/Orange
Maybe, but it’s not that simple. The elaborate regulatory system that has sprung up around cars is a product of society’s priorities and policies. Green lights and speed bumps – all the furniture of our built environment – are as much politics and culture as they are design and technology. That’s why it can seem impossible to build a protected bike path on a popular shopping street or allow parking outside a restaurant, much less build a new tram line or high-speed rail system. A radically redesigned traffic light? Good luck getting approval from your city’s transportation department before automobiles are replaced by flying machines.
The light color of Hajbabaie’s robot, to be clear, is arbitrary. He doesn’t actually care if he’s white. This is just for convenience in his team documents. “We want to let human-driving vehicles know that self-driving cars control the intersection,” he says. “If it’s hard for someone to distinguish between colors, we don’t want to put in a color that’s problematic.”
Indeed, red means to stop and green means to go only because people have forced those meanings on them. As historian Clay McShane wrote, the first semaphore engineers chose red and green because they were used by railway signals. The railroads got the idea from ships; coastal lighthouses used red (the most transparent stained glass color in 1806) so that mariners could distinguish the lighthouses from the sea, and green was the color the British Admiralty decreed for the starboard side of ships in the 1800s 1850s. The fact is that about 8% of men of European descent and 5% of men of Asian descent find it difficult to distinguish between red and green. (The incidence is lower in women.) But in 1923, when a traffic engineer proposed changing some 500 traffic lights in the United States to blue and yellow, his colleagues rejected the idea. They thought drivers wouldn’t be able to make the switch and feared recognizing the problem would make them look stupid.
Cameron Roberts, University of Wisconsin
Some hyperlocal radicals have tried to challenge the standardization of traffic. In Manhattan, Broadway had the familiar red/green configuration, but Fifth Avenue used orange lights for go, green lights for intersections to pass, and red for caution. No problem, except 5th and Broadway intersect at Madison Square. There, McShane wrote, “chaos would eventually ensue.” Fifth Avenue, like the rest of the world, quickly succumbed to the red/green hegemony.
What ultimately shaped all new traffic rules, as with any law and order issue, was power and privilege. “The way our roads are built — the things that changed the city of the 1890s into the kind of city we have today — a lot has come out of the conflict between the rights and responsibilities of different types of road users,” he says. Cameron Roberts, a sustainability and transportation researcher at the University of Wisconsin. People who could afford cars were a wealthy and powerful constituency. In the end they got what they wanted: speed and “freedom”. People build roads, new technology fills them, and then road builders have to figure out how to respond. That’s how we ended up redesigning cities that prioritized cars and suburban sprawl. In the battle between the Model T and pedestrians, the pedestrians never stood a chance.
The same will apply to proposals such as white lights for self-driving cars. “If we’re talking about this new kind of infrastructure, a fourth light stage, you could say it solves a problem,” says Roberts. “But the real question is: Who solves a problem for? And what interests and power do they have to motivate it in practice?” If self-driving cars ever move beyond shared services like taxis and deliveries, the first vehicles will be owned by wealthy people. Should they have a special lane or traffic light dedicated to their convenience?
“There’s going to be a certain social set that’s going to use these things, and they’re going to be very similar to the first motorists: powerful and well-connected,” Roberts says. “I wouldn’t have much faith that something like this would be implemented in a way that takes into account the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users.”
The world of tomorrow
For now, cities are not at risk of being overrun by self-driving cars. Technology seems to have stopped. Investor reports still cite bullish numbers for the eventual size of the autonomous vehicle market, but Google-derived robot car company Waymo, once valued at around $200 billion, is now sitting at around $30 billion, in line with its competitor Cruise. “I’d love a self-driving car, even at twice the price of my car,” says Greg Shill, a law professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in transportation. “But the technology just isn’t there. These things don’t exist, and you can’t even convince investors that they will exist anytime soon.”
Yet even as a hypothesis, there’s something delightfully sci-fi about the idea of slapping a fourth traffic light on traffic lights to make way for robots. (I think this actually happens on the reliable predictive TV show “Futurama,” but I can’t find the episode.) It’s the kind of thing you’d see on a planet covered by a single giant city, teeming with flying cars. Perhaps a true multi-mode intersection could have as many colors as an LED screen can handle, one for each type of object that could pass through it, with an algorithm giving way to drones, delivery vans, robotic cars, wheelchair users , unaccompanied persons. years, ducklings, whatever.
As a thought experiment, the idea of a white light intersection also forces us to reconsider the automotive infrastructure we take for granted. Our traffic regime is old, originally designed for horses and carriages, not F-150s or self-driving vehicles. In recent years, cities have begun to change their car-centric ways, cutting streets and changing road rules to favor bicycles, pedestrians and public transport over vehicles that consume gasoline, heat up the climate and clog the streets. Do we really want to reverse all this progress and reshape our environment for robots?
Hajbabaie knows that his sci-fi sounding proposal is up for debate. He assumes that communication between cars will be near-perfect and instantaneous, which will ring false to anyone who has tried to connect their printer to their WiFi. V2X, the vehicle interconnectivity network it would depend on, never really worked. And Hajbabaie’s team has yet to publish their findings on what happens when they introduce pedestrians into their simulations. (Damn.)
“We are engineers,” he says. “All we can do is do a lot of education and outreach, show what kinds of changes people can expect to see. Show the pros, show the cons, be honest and let them decide.” It’s not just a question of how new technology works. White traffic lights signal more than whether to stop or go: they also signal our values and illuminate the kind of world we want to build.
Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent for Insider.
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