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Driverless Cars

Prepare for Autonomous Traffic Jams

Prepare for Autonomous Traffic Jams

Photograph by Zoran Milich/Getty Images

To date, autonomous cars outfitted with technology from Google have driven themselves more than 200,000 miles around California. Folks in Silicon Valley sometimes tease Google for its driverless car obsession, but the end game seems pretty clear to me. Getting millions of drivers to take their hands off their steering wheels would free them up to trawl the Web, perform billions of searches, and see billions of ads. The only larger, untapped market for ads would be if Google could tunnel into your dreams. (Such research, no doubt, is under way.)

Car companies have their own autonomous bits and bobs in the works, and we see manifestations of the technology today. Some vehicles assist with parking, others warn drivers about collisions. Some carmakers caution, though, that the introduction of truly autonomous vehicles will likely need to wait until pretty basic transportation problems are fixed.

“Google clearly has done some advanced work,” says Paul Mascarenas, the chief technical officer at Ford Research & Innovation, during a recent chat in Detroit. “But our theory is that you have to solve the congestion problem before you get into the vehicle technology.”

About 1 billion cars and trucks currently roam the earth, and according to some estimates, that number may hit as much as 4 billion by the middle of the century due to population growth and rising economies. “Frankly, without some kind of different infrastructure, we are not going to be able to use all those vehicles,” Mascarenas says. “If they are jammed up and can’t move, it doesn’t matter if they are autonomous or not.”

Ford’s vision of the future includes a large amount of vehicle-to-vehicle communication. In such scenarios, cars can talk to each other about their location and speeds, possibly aiding in the creation of so-called smart intersections. “We want to see a real step change in terms of traffic management and safety,” Mascarenas says. Ford has also started exploring ways to create such things as integrated payment systems that would let people pay for tolls, bus fares, and train tickets from a single place. “Autonomous functions are an area we are looking at, but it is just one part of the solution,” Mascarenas says.

Google, of course, does not really need to find a solution to 4 billion cars clogging the roads. Every minute a person spends in a traffic jam is another opportunity to feed them an ad.

Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (HarperCollins, May 2015). Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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