I’ve long thought of traffic as one of the great unifiers of humanity. We all have different loves, desires, hobbies. But the one thing uniformly detested is wasting time unnecessarily, staring at brake lights.
Just how damaging is it? A new report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute says 5.5 billion person hours were wasted sitting in traffic 2011 (the last full year that researchers have measured). That translates to lost productivity of $121 billion.
If you’re a city planner, that’s a big problem. But if you’re an engineer or traffic innovator, that’s also a huge opportunity. Traffic is one of modern society’s greatest inefficiencies, and considering how wasteful those hours spent slowly idling become, there’s a lot of money waiting for the person or company that figures out how to get us all moving faster.
Fortunately, traffic is a heavily researched discipline. Some advocates suggest that adding capacity to roads—a new lane or two—will accommodate more cars, thus alleviate gridlock. Yet a growing consensus of traffic researchers suggests the problem isn’t capacity, it’s irrationality. Every driver is a different actor with his own risk tolerance. That means stopping earlier than you should, or slowing to gawk at an accident, slowing down everyone behind you. Until you remove individual people from driving, they say, you’re always going to have traffic.
Toward that end, of engineers at Google and the Automotive Innovation Lab at Stanford University have been working on the much-publicized self-driving car. The vehicles and navigation systems essentially offer you the ability to be driven, freeing you up for other things you’d rather be doing. Or for people who are blind, deaf, or can’t drive because of other reasons, the idea provides a valuable service. But the next step after simple driverless cars is a smart-traffic system, where people are completely removed from the picture and a network of computers in our cars get us where we need to go, quickly and safely. Imagine a freeway full of cars driving at 80 miles per hour—traveling just inches apart.
We’re not talking the next five years, or even the next 20. Remaking a nation’s entire transportation infrastructure requires decades, not to mention regulatory mandates to make sure the new system covers everyone and one outlier doesn’t gum things up. Once everyone was on board, however, the theory is that you’d be able to leave traffic to the “how did people live like that?” file of history.