Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Self-Driving Automobiles

I admit that I've been a skeptic about self-driving automobiles.  Until this past Sunday, that is, when I found the ideal application for them.

I was driving from my home outside to Denver to my mom's outside Omaha for my annual handyman trip (on the list for this year, in addition to the usual pruning and lifting and moving is some staining and varnishing around the new windows).  The drive is basically all interstate: I-76 northeast out of Denver and then I-80 across Nebraska.  There's never much traffic on I-76 on Sundays and this time was no exception.  I-80 was busier than it's been the last couple of years.  In addition to the standard heavy truck traffic there were quite a lot of people pulling camping trailers of various sizes.

One of my pet peeves about I-80 in western Nebraska over the years has been the driver of the big truck running on cruise control who has crept up behind another big truck on cruise control that's going a half mile-per-hour slower.  So the slightly faster truck pulls out to pass, but doesn't bother to speed up.  Ten minutes or so later they finally get by.  In the meantime, ten or fifteen cars have accumulated in the left lane, waiting to get by, all following too closely.  Some people who aren't paying attention pass the string of cars on the right, suddenly realize they're closing rapidly behind a slow moving truck, and then insist on moving into the already-crowded left lane right now.  Sometimes, it seems, without bothering to look to see if there's any space.

For all practical purposes, I-80 in western Nebraska is a badly-organized train system.  The drive would be much more pleasant if we turned it into an organized system: a faster left lane, a slower right lane, and everyone in each lane runs at precisely the same speed, so the one-truck-crawling-past-the-other situation can't occur.  Lane changes and the resulting acceleration under computer control all done in situations where there's room to merge gracefully.  Ideal for a self-driving automobile.  In fact, I'd go one step farther and mandate autonomous vehicles on those stretches of highway.

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