Will the Internet of Things Save Us from Intersection Accidents?

Most intersections today are controlled by traffic signals, stop signs or roundabouts. However, even when people do follow these protocols, intersections are still the source of many traffic jams and accidents. Even though they take up a small percentage of our roadways, roughly one-quarter of all accidents and one-third of all fatal accidents occur at intersections.

What would happen if these drivers were computers, not humans? It is now apparent that autonomous vehicles are well on their way to becoming a reality. At first they will need to follow the same intersection control protocols that were designed for human drivers. But once most vehicles on the road are autonomous, can we do better at managing intersections by using an autonomous intersection (AI) based mechanism?

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a new intersection control paradigm called Autonomous Intersection Management (AIM). AIM uses autonomous vehicles’ capabilities of sensing, control and communication to make intersections much safer and efficient than traditional control mechanisms such as traffic signals and stop signs.

By utilizing much more of the intersection at any given time than traffic signals and stop signs, the AIM protocol has the potential to dramatically reduce congestion and therefore fuel usage. By eliminating the needs for a lot of deceleration and acceleration, harmful emissions can be dramatically reduced as well.

AIM relies on dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) to allow autonomous vehicles to communicate with a server at the intersection, called the Intersection Manager. Conceptually, the Intersection Manager in each vehicle is an autonomous agent in a multi-agent system. One technical challenge of the research is the protocol between the agents that ensures that vehicles can get through the intersection quickly and, most importantly, guarantees that there will be no collisions as long as there are no mechanical failures and the vehicles follow the protocol.

The Intersection Manager calculates the vehicles’ proposed trajectory based on the expected driver agent behavior and compares it to a reservation table storing past requests. As long as all of the space-time a vehicle needs for its path is unclaimed, the Intersection Manager guarantees safe passage through the intersection at the proposed time. It is the vehicles’ responsibility to arrive at the appointed time and velocity. If a reservation time is denied, the vehicle must request a later reservation.

This basic scheme has now been expanded to deal with a mix of human and autonomous drivers, and to use vehicle-to-vehicle communication at low traffic intersections.

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