Are Self-Driving Cars Ready For This Challenge?

Lots of changes to the way we get around in cars are on the horizon.  Self-driving cars and services like Uber and Lift are already changing car use in cities, but some changes are a result of the landscape the cars drive on: roundabouts and flashing yellow arrows.

Traditional intersections have had green arrows to indicate when it is safe to make a left-hand turn.  When the green arrow comes at the start of a cycle, drivers typically had a turn lane that allowed them to queue up and go before ongoing traffic could go straight.  Traffic going straight might have a red light during this part of the cycle to allow oncoming traffic to turn left as well.

Alternately, the green arrow could come at the end of a cycle, cutting off oncoming traffic to give drivers a chance to turn left.

The problems occur when drivers making a left-hand turn have a green light but no arrow: they have to decide if it is clear enough to turn.  I’ve been involved in one accident where somebody turned in front of me when they didn’t have an arrow and didn’t get through the intersection quickly enough.

A new type of light has arrived in town: flashing yellow arrows.  At some intersections, we no longer get a green arrow at all – instead, we get a red light that sometimes turns into a yellow arrow for a very short amount of time.  There is NO green arrow, so drivers always have to judge when it’s safe to go through the light and never have a time when it is supposed to be safe to do so.  Other intersections have green arrows that turn to flashing yellow arrows when oncoming traffic is allowed to proceed.

So far these intersection has seen much confusion and no increase in safety. While green arrow to yellow arrow to red is easy to follow, the intersections that get only a flashing yellow arrow are counter-intuitive to drivers and can lead to mistakes.  Self-driving cars will probably be better programmed than current drivers as long as the self-driving cars can recognize when an arrow will never be green.

The idea of using a traffic circle instead of an intersection was tried numerous times in the past, usually with bad results.  Traffic in the circle sometimes had to stop for traffic merging in, and the rate of accidents was dismal.  In the 1990s the idea of a roundabout updated the concept of a traffic circle and was found to be much safer.

In a roundabout, there is a one-way circular lane that never yields to merging traffic – cars wishing to get into the circle must slow down or completely stop and yield to traffic in the circle.  Accidents were reduced as much as 80% compared to a traffic circle.  Where drivers are used to using roundabouts they allow better traffic flow than intersections with stop signs or traffic lights.

Unfortunately, where drivers encounter roundabouts for the first time they are confused and unsure of how to proceed.  I first ran into a roundabout in 2002 in upstate New York when traveling near Kingston (the same roads that lead to Camp Townsend!)  This was one of the earliest roundabouts in the country.  No surprise, I was baffled, but since there was almost no traffic at the time I was able to slowly limp around the roundabout.

A little experience with the roundabouts helps.  But even with past experience, I was lost when I traveled to Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis: after driving through one roundabout, a few miles later I reached a point where I had to navigate three consecutive roundabouts!  Bevie was ready to climb out of her seat and run for cover, but I managed to get us through the maze of circles.  It turns out that Carmel has been installing roundabouts at a record pace, and now has over 100 of them in their small town!

Our small town of Anderson now has a roundabout near the mall, and the locals are less than thrilled with it.  At least the roundabout is near a shopping plaza and drivers can avoid it by using one of the other entrances or exits.  If you want to get the Waffle House that’s off one of the roundabout exits you have no choice but to navigate the circle.  Unless you park in the shopping plaza and walk.

No word yet on how well self-driving cars will deal with roundabouts – we can only hope somebody has thought to test them properly.  I nominate Carmel as the ideal place to test the artificial intelligence that will be steering the self-driving cars.

Progressive Rock started sneaking into our ears in the late sixties.  The Beatles and the Beach Boys each contributed to the breaking down of the traditional structure of popular records and by the end of the decade, the changes were unmistakable.  The movement grew primarily in England, and one of the groups that most successfully mixed pop and classical was Yes.  Their first two albums didn’t get much recognition, but the next album got a lot of airplay from three extended songs (Yours Is No Disgrace, Starship Trooper, and I’ve Seen All Good People).

The fourth and fifth albums spawned a series of hit singles that established them as a major force in music.  Perhaps liberated by their success, the band’s music became more classical than pop and its lyrics became thick as a brick.  At the same time, the album covers grew to be more and more impressive artwork.

Their breakthrough single was on their fourth album, Fragile. Perhaps the record company learned from the problems with the long songs on their third album – the next single was cut down from over eight minutes to about three and a half minutes. Album-oriented rock stations played the long version, while top forty stations jumped on the shorter version and made it a hit: Roundabout.