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The traffic intersection of the future – busy, computer controlled and very nerve-wracking

LA-Traffic-I405The technology behind autonomous driving is advancing by the day, with engineers at General Motors believing that in 10 to 15 years time, cars that don’t require us to control them in the way we do now will be more commonplace.

But how about even further in the future, when the majority of cars become autonomous? What will our roads look like, and how will complex and busy intersections work if we’re not involved in their navigation?

According to Peter Stone, a scientist at the University of Texas, they will become incredibly efficient due to the fact a computer will be controlling everything that happens. Traffic lights and stop signs will eventually disappear, although at first some kind of system will need to stay in place for those not in autonomous vehicles, and the the traffic flow will be micro-managed by a computer dedicated to that junction.

When considering something like this at the moment, it’s inevitable our minds turn to science fiction films. We’ve seen the relative normality of road travel in the future in Minority Report and iRobot, and the organized chaos of the skies above Coruscant in Attack of the Clones. But are these accurate depictions of computer-controlled highways?

Mr. Stone’s research group has made a video showing how a computer would manage autonomous cars at an intersection, and what the flow of traffic would look like. All you need to know before you watch it below is that the yellow vehicles are those driven by Luddites who still steer, accelerate and brake themselves.

Aside from the sheer speed at which everything moves, it’s the endless close-calls between the weaving traffic that’s frightening. It may not look all that bad in this animation, but picture yourself sitting in a car — over which you have no control — at the busiest junction you know, then imagine crossing it at high speed inches away from oncoming traffic.

You’d get used to it of course, but the first few times would be more nerve-wracking than if you ignored traffic signals all-day today. Rather than putting your faith in other driver’s reactions, you’ll be putting it in several computers instead. That could be, for some anyway, the biggest stumbling block in the mass adoption of autonomous cars.