The Computer-Controlled Driving Experience Is About More Than Just Self-Driving Cars

Traffic signals that sync with traffic. Cars that communicate with each other to optimize traffic flow. The smarter our driving systems get–the cleaner and faster they’ll be.

The Computer-Controlled Driving Experience Is About More Than Just Self-Driving Cars
[Photo: De Visu via Shutterstock]

If you were to design a transport system to use as much energy as possible, with the greatest possible impact on the environment, you’d design a system something like the one we have now. You’d give everyone their own car, subsidize gasoline to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and allow everyone to drive everywhere for the same cost, irrespective of traffic conditions or air quality. Today, the United States uses 170 billion gallons of fuel to go a total of three trillion miles a year. The result is gridlock in many places and massive carbon emissions.


One day we may all drive around in electric cars powered from renewable energy sources. But even that wouldn’t help as much as you might think. It would cut pollution, sure. But if we organized traffic systems the way we do now, we’d still have traffic congestion and high blood pressure.

A new report makes the case for other types of technology, including systems allowing cars to cooperate to save energy, smart parking systems that stop people circling around cities looking for free spots, and responsive traffic lights set up to reduce emissions. It comes from the Information Technology Industry Council, an IT industry group, so it’s probably bound to propose technology as a silver bullet. But still. It’s interesting and worth considering.

Here are three areas the report covers:

Vehicle technologies

These include “adaptive cruise control,” which allows cars to sense the speed and distance of the vehicle in front, and “cooperative-adaptive cruise control,” which actually platoons vehicles, so the the one at the front effectively controls the ones behind (see here). Another idea is “cylinder deactivation,” which cuts off cylinders when demand for horsepower is low (for example, on the highway). In all, the report says these ideas could save 110 million barrels of oil or 20 million tons of CO2 over ten years, with the platooning technology offering greatest potential.

Traveller IT

Another group of technologies includes concepts like “eco-navigation,” in which cars plan routes to allow for the least fuel use, and “eco-cruise control” in which a car computes its optimal speed within upper and lower limits. Car sharing systems that allow drivers to pay by use also leads to overall less driving. In all, the report says these ideas could save 420 million barrels of oil or 70 million tons of CO2 over 10 years.

Infrastructure IT

These include traffic signal systems synchronized to improve traffic flow and “adaptive signal control” where the timing of lights changes according according to real-time traffic conditions. The report includes a case study from Pittsburgh, where researchers from Carnegie Mellon University installed computers at each intersection to monitor traffic, creating on-the-fly timing for traffic lights based on traffic volumes in different directions. The system saved 21% of carbon emissions, 25% of travel time, and 247 gallons per day, the researchers say. Across the U.S., these technologies could save 117 million barrels of oil or 19 million tons of CO2, the report says.


Check out the full study here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.