Road Diets and AI Autonomous Cars

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Altering an existing road to reduce the number of lanes is called a road diet. Original six lanes, left, get converted to one travel lane in each direction, bike lanes on each side and curb cut pullover areas for deliveries on each side.

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/]

There must be hundreds or maybe even thousands of different diet regimens that you can opt to use.

Some diets might be good for you, while others can have adverse consequences that outweigh the benefits of the dietary aspects.

People often struggle to choose the right diet for them, and they equally tend to struggle trying to stay on the diet and stick with it. I’ve known some people that became quite irritable and onerous once they got onto a diet program.

Let’s consider another kind of diet, namely a road diet.

If you aren’t familiar with the notion of a road diet, don’t feel too bad about not knowing what it is.

In some sense, road diets are a bit of a fad that seems to come and go.

Generally, a road diet consists of taking an existing roadway and altering it to reduce the number of traffic lanes or otherwise adjusting the nature of the traffic lanes. The roadway is usually still the same overall width. The width of the lanes within the overall width of the roadway are the target of the changes or adjustments.

Besides referring to these kinds of changes as a road diet, there are some that simply call it “lane reductions” (but that’s not very catchy, is it), and others that refer to it as road re-channelization (a hefty 5-dollar word that makes it sound more scientific).

To those that want to make lane reductions, using the phrase “road diet” is handy since it has a rather positive connotation. We all generally believe that diets are a good thing. Those that oppose road diets are a bit chagrined that the road diet moniker is used and claim that it is a sneaky wording that hides the true intent, consisting of reducing the number of car traffic lanes. In any case, I’ll use herein the phrase road diet.

Depiction Of A Typical Road Diet

Allow me to provide you with an indication of what a road diet might consist of.

Suppose that your town or city has a four-lane road that is known as Main Street.

There are two lanes going in the southbound direction and two other lanes going in the northbound direction. Traffic moves along on this handy thoroughfare. Perhaps this Main Street has been in existence for many years and seemed to serve the needs of the town or city quite well over those many years. It has become a heartened part of the tradition and lore of the place.

But, there are some in the community that have qualms about the layout of Main Street.

It is dangerous for bike riders to ride on Main Street, and even when hugging the curb, there have sadly been periodic instances of car accidents involving wayward automobiles striking kids and adults on bikes. Another concern is that the cars driving on Main Street tend to go faster than the speed limit, often acting like they are driving on a four-lane open highway instead of down a busy street with lots of shops and businesses. There have been many circumstances of pedestrians that almost got hit while trying to cross Main Street.

What to do?

Some would say that this Main Street is primed to go on a road diet.

Here’s what we’ll do.

The total width of Main Street is 44 feet.

There are four lanes of 11 feet each.

Let’s get rid of two of those car traffic lanes, which frees up 22 feet. Since we want to help out the bike riders, let’s use 5 feet respectively on either side of Main Street for a devoted bike lane. In the middle of Main Street, we’ll put a new lane that’s 12 feet wide and allows for making left turns.

Overall, here’s what we originally had for the 44-foot wide Main Street: 

  • 11-foot southbound car lane 
  • 11-foot southbound car lane 
  • 11-foot northbound car lane 
  • 11-foot northbound car lane

Once we put the roadway onto the devised road diet, it would contain this:

  • 5-foot bike-lane southbound 
  • 11-foot car-lane southbound 
  • 12-foot car-lane mix for south/north left-turning traffic 
  • 11-foot car-lane northbound 
  • 5-foot bike-lane northbound

We are still within the original 44 feet of Main Street.

This makes life somewhat easier because if we had wanted to widen Main Street it would have been quite extensive and expensive roadway infrastructure project. We would have had to uproot the sidewalks and the various fire hydrants and light posts. Since we are only changing the lanes within the existing overall width of the road, the effort to make the changes will be a lot less costly and arduous to undertake.

I’m not suggesting that the road diet changes are somehow cost-free or cheap to do.

Having to re-stripe the road and potentially make other modifications to accommodate the new plan can definitively have some substantive costs. If you compare those costs to widening the road or making other more substantive structural changes, on a relative basis the road diet is likely more affordable.

Road Diets Vary

Not all road diets will necessarily stick with the original width of the road.

You can have instances of widening the overall width of the road, even when it is undertaking a so-called diet.

The diet part of things is usually focused on the fact that you are reducing the number of car traffic lanes (or, sometimes reducing the width of the existing car traffic lanes). You then use the freed-up space for other purposes, which might include adding bike lanes, adding a center turn lane, or perhaps widening or adding sidewalks, etc.

For the Main Street example, suppose the changes were indeed made and we have this new and exciting version of Main Street. Bike riders are now less likely (hopefully) to get hit by cars because of the added bike lanes. This might encourage bike riders to use Main Street, more so than they might have otherwise.

Constricting the car traffic to now just one lane in each direction is likely to slow down the cars.

This might deal with the prior aspect that cars were often speeding down Main Street, rising to speeds that were prone to accidents and potentially hitting pedestrians. With the constricted availability of just one lane in each direction, the traffic is perhaps slowed down and will be less apt to drive recklessly.

There are some studies that claim that the proper use of a road diet can reduce car crashes by around 47% and reduce speeding by about 70%.

Those studies also suggest that there might be an increase in bike riders of around 37%. Plus, there might be an increase in pedestrian foot-traffic of around 49%.

It would seem that the use of a road diet is a really good way to keep a roadway in existence and yet redesign and repurpose it to better suit the needs of the community. It can potentially save lives. It can possibly rejuvenate an area – suppose that the bike riders and pedestrians had previously avoided going to the businesses and shops on Main Street due to the car traffic dangers. Now, those bike riders and pedestrians might opt to revisit Main Street and shop there once again.

Road Diets Not All Rosy

Not all is necessarily so rosy on Main Street, though.

If the drop to just one car traffic lane in each direction does constrict traffic flow, it might lead to heavy congestion now on Main Street.

Cars might be snarled all along Main Street, trying to get to their destinations. This heavy traffic might become visually a blight and might also increase noise or odors. It could frustrate car drivers. People might now find themselves taking much longer to drive to wherever they are trying to go and thus burning up more gasoline and wear-and-tear on their cars.

An unintended reaction by the drivers could be that they decide to spillover into nearby neighborhoods.

If Main Street has become a bottleneck, the car drivers might decide to turn onto side streets and weave through whatever streets are adjacent to Main Street. This could impact those streets and endanger those that live on those streets. All of a sudden, a quiet neighborhood that once had only local traffic could now be inundated with cars trying to make their way along on Main Street but desperately seeking an alternative.

This self-diverting of traffic could increase the risks for pedestrians and bike riders in the adjacent neighborhoods.

Whereas maybe Main Street is now safer, it could be that the risks and potential car accidents are merely being shifted into those other streets. You didn’t particularly fix the problem and only pushed it into another area. Sometimes the adjacent neighborhoods now need to react and ask that roadway speed bumps be put in place, along with other traffic restrictions and posted signs to warn car drivers to not carelessly use those adjacent streets as though they are still on Main Street.

Some would argue that another disadvantage of constricting the car traffic involves the potential delaying of first responders to an emergency.

A police car that is trying to quickly get to a crime scene and that uses Main Street might be delayed by the traffic congestion now on Main Street. Likewise, there might be delays to ambulances or fire trucks. This could be another unintended consequence of the road diet.

Another possibility of something amiss could be that cars begin to avoid using Main Street whatsoever.

This certainly reduces the volume of traffic and might aid the use of Main Street for the bike riders and pedestrians. But, it could also lead to less people driving to and visiting the shops and businesses that are lined along Main Street. Those shops and businesses might soon discover that their revenues are drying up due to the road diet.

A somewhat rarer potential issue could be that circumstance of a mass evacuation and the road diet preventing people from readily driving to get out-of-town. If a hurricane is heading in the direction of the town and people are supposed to get out-of-town, perhaps the reduced lanes might slow down all that car traffic and prevent people from fleeing on a timely basis.

As you can hopefully discern, the road diet is a practice that often involves great controversy.

Controversy And Road Diets

Many cities or towns that start toward using a road diet approach will often do so quietly and without much fanfare.

It kind of slips under the radar of the populace. A particular town might decide that they have a roadway they want to put on a road diet. They move forward doing so. Once they are done, all of a sudden, the car traffic that has routinely been using that roadway now becomes quite concerned about what has taken place. People rise up and complain.

It could be that the car traffic that was using that portion of the roadway as a kind of pass-thru and they really didn’t care much about the local aspects per se. If the pass-thru was in a location that does not allow for ready alternatives, it is likely those car drivers are going to be steamed about the changes. The potential political pressure and public backlash can be tremendous.

Plus, even if those impacted are sympathetic to the road diet, they might argue that the particular road diet design was deficient.

As I mentioned earlier, people that sometimes choose to go on a food diet discover that not all food diet programs are necessarily the best for you. It might be that the road diet approach undertaken is not the best choice for the situation at-hand and thus it could be that some that oppose the road diet are primarily opposing the specific implementation of it, and yet still open to a road diet of some alternative design.

One such example of a road diet controversy took place in Santa Monica, California , and I was caught up in the matter as someone that at the time routinely drove through the area in question.

Press coverage encompassed both those in favor of the road diet and those in opposition.

The opposing forces called it a draconian lane reduction, some called it a debacle, some said it was a road diet disaster. There were even efforts to recall some of the politicians that had been involved in the road diet effort.

As you might guess, there was a lot of hand wringing too because some that generally believe in road diets were worried that if this road diet was expunged it might curtail all future road diet initiatives.

Generally, there is much debate on all sides of the road diet approach.

I mentioned earlier that it could be that the road diet might slow down first responders, but this is considered a controversial point and there are some researchers that say it is a false assumption and a myth.

There are numbers and stats to be found on each side of the coin about road diets. It is difficult to compare road diets since they each have their own particular shapes and sizes. A road diet might do well in one jurisdiction and do poorly in another. You cannot usually carte blanche declare a road diet as good or bad, and instead would need to look at the circumstances and situation involved.

Back to my analogy about food diets to the nature of road diets. Are all food (roadway) diets bad? Nope. Are some food (roadway) diets bad? Yes. Is a food (roadway) diet that is good for Joe (city X) necessarily also good for Samantha (city Y)? No. Should we be willing to consider a food (roadway) diet? Yes. Is one food (roadway) diet the same as another? Not usually. And so on.

Road Diets And AI Autonomous Cars

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One aspect that is considered an “edge” problem involves the nature of road diets as it relates to AI self-driving cars.

It is considered an edge problem since it is not at the core of what most of the automakers and tech firms are focusing on. They pretty much are focused on the rudiments of getting the AI to drive a self-driving car. The use of an AI self-driving car in a road dieted situation is not at the core of the driving task, in their view, and can be dealt with at a later time (it is considered on the corner or edge of the core problem being solved).

For my article about edge problems for AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/edge-problems-core-true-self-driving-cars-achieving-last-mile/

I’d like to first clarify and introduce the notion that there are varying levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level is considered Level 5. A Level 5 self-driving car is one that is being driven by the AI and there is no human driver involved. For the design of Level 5 self-driving cars, the automakers are even removing the gas pedal, the brake pedal, and steering wheel, since those are contraptions used by human drivers. The Level 5 self-driving car is not being driven by a human and nor is there an expectation that a human driver will be present in the self-driving car. It’s all on the shoulders of the AI to drive the car.

For self-driving cars less than a Level 5, there must be a human driver present in the car. The human driver is currently considered the responsible party for the acts of the car. The AI and the human driver are co-sharing the driving task. In spite of this co-sharing, the human is supposed to remain fully immersed into the driving task and be ready at all times to perform the driving task. I’ve repeatedly warned about the dangers of this co-sharing arrangement and predicted it will produce many untoward results.

For my overall framework about AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/framework-ai-self-driving-driverless-cars-big-picture/

For the levels of self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/

For why AI Level 5 self-driving cars are like a moonshot, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/self-driving-car-mother-ai-projects-moonshot/

For the dangers of co-sharing the driving task, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/human-back-up-drivers-for-ai-self-driving-cars/

Let’s focus herein on the true Level 5 self-driving car. Much of the comments apply to the less than Level 5 self-driving cars too, but the fully autonomous AI self-driving car will receive the most attention in this discussion.

Here’s the usual steps involved in the AI driving task: 

  • Sensor data collection and interpretation 
  • Sensor fusion 
  • Virtual world model updating 
  • AI action planning 
  • Car controls command issuance

Another key aspect of AI self-driving cars is that they will be driving on our roadways in the midst of human driven cars too. There are some pundits of AI self-driving cars that continually refer to a utopian world in which there are only AI self-driving cars on public roads. Currently there are about 250+ million conventional cars in the United States alone, and those cars are not going to magically disappear or become true Level 5 AI self-driving cars overnight.

Indeed, the use of human driven cars will last for many years, likely many decades, and the advent of AI self-driving cars will occur while there are still human driven cars on the roads. This is a crucial point since this means that the AI of self-driving cars needs to be able to contend with not just other AI self-driving cars, but also contend with human driven cars. It is easy to envision a simplistic and rather unrealistic world in which all AI self-driving cars are politely interacting with each other and being civil about roadway interactions. That’s not what is going to be happening for the foreseeable future. AI self-driving cars and human driven cars will need to be able to cope with each other.

For my article about the grand convergence that has led us to this moment in time, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/grand-convergence-explains-rise-self-driving-cars/

See my article about the ethical dilemmas facing AI self-driving cars: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/

For potential regulations about AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/assessing-federal-regulations-self-driving-cars-house-bill-passed/

For my predictions about AI self-driving cars for the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/gen-z-and-the-fate-of-ai-self-driving-cars/

Road Diets As Aiding Autonomous Cars

Returning to the topic of road diets, let’s consider how road diets are related to AI self-driving cars.

First, some pundits argue that we ought to consider implementing road diets as a means to support the advent of AI self-driving cars.

It is assumed that we will gradually have lots and lots of AI self-driving cars on the roadways.

Furthermore, those AI self-driving cars are likely to be put to use on a non-stop 24×7 basis. You’ll see AI self-driving cars cruising back-and-forth, providing all kinds of ridesharing services for us. You might use an AI self-driving car to take your kids to school and pick them up after classes to drive them home (you won’t need to do the driving, instead just send the AI self-driving car). Or, maybe send your AI self-driving car to pick-up that pizza for dinner. Etc.

For my article about non-stop use, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/non-stop-ai-self-driving-cars-truths-and-consequences/

For my article about ridesharing, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ridesharing-services-and-ai-self-driving-cars-notably-uber-in-or-uber-out/

For in-car deliveries, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/in-car-deliveries-with-ai-self-driving-cars/

Some believe that we should consider blocking off many downtown areas to reduce the amount of car traffic and increase the amount of foot traffic and biking that can occur.

The use of a road diet approach would presumably aid in this notion.

You might then have possibly well-coordinated AI self-driving cars that are streaming back-and-forth throughout these road dieted locations. Those AI self-driving cars are picking up people or goods, and delivering people or goods. They are well-coordinated in that perhaps the use of V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle communications) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) communications has allowed them to ascertain which ones are going on which roads, and otherwise align their efforts.

This seems sound in theory and nearly Utopian.

As mentioned though, there will be a long-time overlap of human driven cars and AI self-driving cars.

Would both human driven cars and AI self-driving cars be both allowed into these road dieted locations?

If so, the human driven cars would presumably have a more difficult time coordinating their driving activities than would the only-AI driven cars. Also, the variability of how the driving of the human driven cars would occur in the dieted locations is likely higher than the AI self-driving cars (in essence, it would be possible to have the AI self-driving cars driving in a special “road diet mode” while in a road dieted location).

It is likely that these road dieting efforts will encounter many of the same qualms already expressed about today’s road diets. The impact might be that the road congestion generated becomes untenable. It could be that the traffic delays generated become untenable. And so on.

You’ve ordered a pizza delivery to your downtown apartment which is nestled in a road dieted location. Turns out that the AI self-driving car trying to reach you has been delayed in the road diet area due to the volume of cars trying to push through that roadway. You are upset about the delay in getting your pizza!

I realize that the delay in getting a pizza is somewhat silly perhaps. I just used the pizza example to illustrate what might take place. You can substitute the pizza delivery with let’s say medicine being delivered to an elderly person living within the road dieted zone. That obviously ups the stakes in understanding the impact that traffic delays might cause.

Trade-off Aspects Of Implementing Road Diets

Some of the disadvantages of road diets can be likely better controlled via the use of AI self-driving cars.

For example, the spillover effect can be potentially reduced by informing the AI systems of self-driving cars that they are not supposed to try and avoid the road diet by taking side streets. This could be possibly pumped to the AI via the on-board OTA (Over-the-Air) electronic communications, which usually involve providing updates or patches to the self-driving car.

For more about OTA, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/air-ota-updating-ai-self-driving-cars/

In general, the aspects of adjusting downtown areas onto a road diet has both its positives and its negatives.

If you could ban human driven cars from those road dieted areas, it might make for a more orderly use of the available car lanes.

Whether humans will put up with being banned from driving in those areas would seem like an open question and one that might generate a lot of public debate and controversy.

Even if you could ban human drivers from those areas, you still need to consider how much car traffic you are anticipating.

I say that because even if you have only AI self-driving cars allowed into a road dieted location, this does not somehow magically overcome the volume and timing of the car traffic axiomatically. You can only get so much water to flow through a pipe of a certain size. The same would be true about the number of car lanes available and the volume of the AI self-driving cars that are being sought to get into and out of the road dieted area at any point in time.

The other major aspect to consider about AI self-driving cars and road diets consists of the specialized driving nature of traversing and using a road dieted location.

There are some AI developers that say there is nothing unusual or new about driving in a road dieted location. In their book, if an AI self-driving car can navigate a normal road, it should be able to do the same when navigating a road dieted location. I consider this to be a head-in-the-sand belief and one that can bode for problems when AI self-driving cars get themselves into such specialized circumstances.

For AI developers and egocentric designs, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/egocentric-design-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

We believe that there is more to dealing with a road dieted location than just an everyday driving routine.

Specialized AI Driving Capabilities Needed

Road dieted locations do have a specialized element and therefore merit specialized AI capabilities to properly undertake.

As already mentioned, one aspect would be the driving practices of the AI self-driving car. In a savvy AI system, if there is a roadway bottleneck, the AI will try to find a means to get around the bottleneck. But, in the case of a road diet, it might be that by-design the self-driving cars are being asked to refrain from trying to spillover into nearby neighborhoods. The AI would need to be able to get notified of this driving condition and be able to adjust accordingly.

Another aspect involves whether the road dieted location might have special cut-out areas that are intended for loading and unloading. It is expected that for the safe and efficient delivery of goods and people, there will be various street cut-out areas to allow for loading and unloading, more so than typically is available today. The advent of large volumes of deliveries via AI self-driving cars and ridesharing will increase the need for these specialized zones.

The AI self-driving car needs to be versed in approaching, stopping, and then resuming a car driving journey in these road dieted locations. This must be done with the utmost safety and with the realization that there will likely be a significant presence of both pedestrians and bicyclists.

The AI self-driving car also needs to be ready to cope with the V2V and V2I electronic communications that are likely to be occurring in those road dieted locations, sifting through what might be a voluminous amount of information and coordination aspects.

Another aspect involves the potential for pranking of an AI self-driving car.

It is anticipated that humans might try to “prank” AI self-driving cars, doing so by for example stepping in front of an AI self-driving car to get it to come to a sudden stop. This might be done just for fun or sport, and not due to genuinely needing to get the AI self-driving car to come to a halt. The odds are that this kind of pranking will occur even more so in a road dieted location, due to the higher volume of nearby pedestrians and bike riders. The AI system needs to be versed in dealing with the pranks.

For pranking of AI self-driving cars, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/pranking-of-ai-self-driving-cars/

If there is human driven car traffic allowed into the road dieted area, the AI needs to be prepared to contend with the variabilities of what those human drivers might do. A savvy AI system needs to be versed in defensive driving techniques overall. Within a road dieted location, there are various specific defensive aspects that the AI should be further have available in its driving capabilities.

For my article about defensive driving for AI self-driving cars, see: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/art-defensive-driving-key-self-driving-car-success/

Another potential difficulty for an AI self-driving car would be the encountering of a road dieted location for the first time. If the AI self-driving car did not realize beforehand there was a road dieted location on its driving journey, perhaps it is not marked as such on a map or GPS, the AI system needs to detect that a road dieted location exists and that the self-driving car has entered into it. Once having discerned and mapped out the road dieted location, it could potentially add this aspect to its repertoire as part of the Machine Learning capabilities.

For more about machine learning, see my article: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/machine-learning-benchmarks-and-ai-self-driving-cars/

For ensemble machine learning, see my article: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ensemble-machine-learning-for-ai-self-driving-cars/

Road diets, they are coming.

The emergence of AI self-driving cars will likely promote the adoption of lane reductions and road diets.

This should not be done blindly.

A road diet can be a boon to a local area or become a nightmare.

Either way, if a road diet is instituted, the AI of the self-driving car needs to be ready to cope with the particulars of a road dieted location.

It is important to make sure that the AI is beefed-up and not too slim on how to best and safely drive in an area that’s gotten a slenderized road diet.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.