Primal Numbers – The Internet of Traffic Jams

The Internet of things is wonderful. It can let your fridge tell you when your milk’s about to expire, or help your washing machine decide exactly how much detergent to use. And soon it could even direct traffic, doing away with the need for outdated technology like traffic lights. A wonderful future indeed, but only if it includes one vital thing: a manual override.

The news about the potential Internet of traffic jams comes from The Guardian, which reports that in 2014 drivers “spent an average 66 more hours stuck in traffic than they did in 2013.” Everything from storms to accidents can create delays on the road, but no matter what the cause, there are few things more frustrating that sitting in your car and creeping along an inch at a time.

Enter the digital solution: a central database that feeds info from individual vehicles into a system and regulates when and how self-driving cars would navigate around each other. Traffic lights? You won’t need them. Not when your vehicle can “schedule a slot through an intersection in real-time, speeding up or slowing down to ensure [It’s] in the right place at the right time.”

The protocol is known as AIM (Autonomous Intersection Management), and the theory is that self-driving vehicles that communicate with each other will create a much more efficient traffic flow than millions of individual drivers?especially since self-driving cars don’t get distracted by phone calls or kids bickering in the back seat.

It’s easy to see how the benefits could be huge. Cars would slow down or speed up based on data from several intersections ahead. Stops would be reduced, emissions would be lowered, and the traffic light could become a thing of the past.

Until, of course, there’s a problem. It’s not just the possibility of hackers. Or even the fact that pedestrians and cyclists add a random element that can’t be adjusted for. No, the problem could lie in the lack of a manual backup?that old-fashioned system of stop signs, traffic lights, and other directional cues that drivers still know how to use.

Suppose, for example, that an automated system of self-driving cars has been ticking along just fine for a couple of years. New drivers don’t need to know anything about the rules of the road, like what to do at a four-way stop, and existing drivers are out of practice. we’re all just cruising along with the car in command, confident that the computer knows best.

Then there’s a glitch in the system. A software update malfunctions or the mainframe goes out. Suddenly, the self-driving grid grinds to a halt. If you think today’s urban traffic jams are bad, just imagine the pandemonium when millions of hapless drivers attempt to take over the manual controls of their car?drivers who might never have taken the wheel before.

AIM is an exciting development, no doubt. One that could truly revolutionize the way we drive. But there’s a lot to be said for making sure drivers keep their skills sharp, too. No matter what the situation, the person behind the wheel of a fast-moving ton of metal should have the skills to navigate it safely. And that includes knowing how to obey a traffic light.

Because Internet traffic on your computer is one thing. But an Internet slowdown on the highway? I’d rather take the wheel myself, thanks.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.