Oh, it’s a wonderful time of the year! Time to hit the road and visit the family. With a final scan of the house, you set the security system, holler at everyone to get in the car, and follow the people, packages, and pies to take your place in the driver’s seat. Set the GPS for the fastest route. Check the time: on schedule. Your adrenaline is pumping, you feel good. The 10-minute drive to the Interstate is uneventful. The first five miles are smoo… stop!
Red tail lights glare at you for as far as you can see and a full three lanes wide. You feel the blood drain into your stomach and know you are in for a long trip. Your right foot twitches in anticipation of braking off and on. You figured that there would be some traffic, but how can it be this bad? Is there a better way?
Communication & Collaboration
Some are working hard at a solution that requires communication and collaboration, not among humans, but between vehicles.
With the advent, rapid growth, and consumer acceptance of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, machines working together to work for us is becoming commonplace. Biometric sensors on our wrists tell associated systems to prompt us to exercise, alert us to take medication, and automatically adjust the thermostat to make us more comfortable.
The autonomous vehicle (AV) is a scaled-up version of interactive technology. The purpose is to efficiently and safely move from point A to point B. Theoretically, removing human variables such as emotion and delayed reaction time from the driving equation as much as possible increases predictability, which increases reliability and safety.
So, when you load the minivan to go to you sister’s house in the future, you will set the GPS as you normally would. Then, instead of taking the wheel, you sit back, sip your coffee, and let the AV take over. And, because many other people have AVs, and they communicate with each other, the ride is well-paced and congestion-free.
Autonomous cars are complex, inter- and intra-dependent systems that include multiple levels of hardware and software. The hardware shapes the methods of input and output. Sensors gather information from GPS/Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs), cameras, LiDar, and radar. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) components enable vehicles to capture data from and communicate with each other as well as signal lights, signage, roads, etc. The final pieces of hardware are the actuators, which enable control and actually move the machine. 
Software analyzes the input from other vehicles (speed, lane changes, braking, etc.), the environment (to identify weather conditions, road conditions, objects, etc.), and infrastructure (traffic signals, railroad crossings, construction warnings, etc.). Some of this information might come to a vehicle from one that is well ahead of it on the road – an advantage that human drivers do not have, not in real time. The AV system compares the real time data to configured rules, both practical and ethical, for how to navigate the current surroundings under the identified conditions. Then, based on the analysis, the navigation settings, and the safety and efficiency objectives, the system determines and executes the appropriate actions.
It Could Work
Several studies show that human beings are their own greatest threats on the road. A 2017 Rutgers University study, backed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), confirmed that common driving acts such as changing lanes or tapping the brakes cause stop-and-go traffic. It is human nature to waver when the environment around them changes; further, when one person reacts, then every person in the line of following vehicles reacts, perhaps with incrementally greater force. When the AV was introduced into the traffic flow during the field experiment, it helped interrupt the stop-and-go pattern and create a steadier flow. “The researchers determined that even a small percentage of autonomous vehicles (5 percent) could have a significant impact in eliminating waves and reducing the total fuel consumption by up to 40 percent and the braking events by up to 99 percent.” 
In another NSF-funded study, held in 2016 and published in 2018, researchers performed an experiment on a closed track. Amidst 21 manually driven vehicles was one self-driving vehicle, with a driver behind the wheel. “When all the vehicles were driven by humans, we would see these stop-and-go waves… But when we activated the autonomous vehicle, the stop-and-go waves stabilized.”  Even though this was a closed environment, the idea of inserting AVs into the traffic pattern to maintain a steady pattern shows some efficacy.
A traffic flow expert at Virginia Tech, Professor of Engineering Hesham Rakha, ran a simulation similar to the 2016 study. The results were also similar: “In Rakha’s simulation, as the number of self-driving cars increases, we can see how the red dots indicating congestion on the screen gradually clears and become green, moving dots.”  The self-driven cars overcame the traffic congestion.
As the AVs communicate and collaborate they automatically adjust to accommodate changes in the environment and the traffic patterns. And the assigned intentions never change: be safe, be efficient, reach the target destination.
Evidence of Progress
Because of the number and variety of components needed to make AV transportation optimal, inventors in many disciplines are involved in research and development. Following are a few recent inventions meant to move the mission forward.*
US9916703 Calibration for autonomous vehicle operation. Zoox, Inc. (Menlo Park, CA, US). March 2018.
US10049505 Systems and methods for maintaining a self-driving vehicle. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY (Bloomington, IL, US). August 2018.
US9833901 General purpose robotics operating system with unmanned and autonomous vehicle extensions. Perrone Robotics, Inc. (Charlottesville, VA, US). December 2017.
US9989967 All weather autonomously driven vehicles. Cybernet Systems Corporation (Ann Arbor, MI, US). June 2018.
US10013893 Driver training. Lifelong Driver LLC (Incline Village, NV, US). July 2018.
We still have a long way to go. Operating autonomous vehicles is not a perfect solution, mainly because the human factor can never be omitted. Humans are inherently unpredictable and have their own intentions and missions that do not necessarily align with one another – let alone with a robot-like car. There are, of course, studies opposing the idea altogether. But, current work might be putting us on the right track to better traffic control and reduced fuel consumption. If it reduces the holiday travel stress, we’ll take it!
*Search performed using IP.com’s InnovationQ.