14 Jun Could self-driving cars speed hurricane evacuations
The case for a fully autonomous escape plan
The Atlantic | Laura Bliss | Oct 14, 2016
Hurricane Matthew’s record rains were but the first of many obstacles faced by millions of evacuees in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas this past week. Roads were blocked by chest-high floodwaters and downed trees. Gas stations ran out of fuel. And traffic sat backed up for miles along interstate highways as floodwaters overtook what appeared to be tens of thousands of households.
Most did make it to safety, thanks to evacuation orders, well-planned emergency procedures, and traffic managers switching up lanes to move a glut of vehicles (contraflow for the win). But the roads still proved lethal for some motorists, and others never made it out the front door at all. Hurricane Matthew’s death toll now stands at at least 33—and swollen rivers are still rising in North Carolina.
Could lives have been saved if evacuees didn’t have to pilot themselves? Given the capabilities that carmakers are rapidly approaching with autonomous-vehicle technology, this isn’t mere idle speculation: The U.S. Department of Transportation has been studying how car-to-car communications, a critical piece of the anticipated self-driving future, might improve evacuation procedures. And the recent federal policy guidance highlights the need for auto makers to consider how robo-vehicles might respond in emergency situations.
There are a lot of advantages you can think about,” says Brian Wolshon, the founding director of the Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency at Louisiana State University. For one thing, even partially autonomous vehicles could improve traffic flow, if there were enough of them. During evacuations, Wolshon says, dense crowding, traffic disturbances, and slower human reaction times tend to depress per-hour traffic volumes, compared to what you’d see during a regular rush hour. If everyone was using, say, Tesla’s Autopilot—which can speed and slow a vehicle in a responsive manner while maintaining lane position (and avoiding rubbernecking)—they could move closer together and at higher speeds, getting more bodies to safety faster. This kind of effect could still be years down the road, though, since “you’d need to have a lot of vehicles with that kind of control to see any real difference in volume,” says Wolshon.
Most of the nation’s largest 50 cities lack any kind of comprehensive evacuation protocols for those without cars.
Closer on the horizon, however, are “connected” cars, which have the ability to communicate with other vehicles (“V to V” technology) or with traffic infrastructure such as lights and cameras (“V to I”). These are sort of like the first rung on the ladder to full automation. In an evacuation, such cars could disperse information about washed-out roads, traffic hazards, and alternative routes. That could help keep motorists out of harm’s way and traffic flowing more smoothly. “If cars are giving drivers strategic routing information, then you get a better utilization of the road network,” says Wolshon. Connected vehicles could also scoop up notices about nearby food, shelter, gas, and medical services.
True fully autonomous cars may be a decade or more away, but such vehicles could revolutionize evacuations. Imagine fleets of robotic trucks, buses, and specialized vehicles navigating treacherous terrain, ferrying supplies, picking up evacuees, and even making rescue trips—without putting human drivers in danger (or doing donuts in the submerged streets, like this halfwit in Florida did last week).