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Take Back Your Travel Time

By Whitney Huang

While many people waste tons of time in traffic, new research is focused on using automated vehicles to maximize our happiness and safety in our daily commute.


Automation is a hot trend in technology, especially within the vehicle industry. One of the main purposes of an automated vehicle is to maximize people’s usage of previously wasted time. Instead of being annoyed by unpleasant traffic every day and needing to commit their full focus, people can use this previously wasted time for work or for relaxation during their commute. However, an increasing number of tragedies have occurred due to the existence of automated vehicles. For example, back in May of 2016, a self-driving Tesla vehicle ran under a truck when two vehicles were both crossing the same road at high speed, ending in a fatal tragedy. Dismayed at these catastrophes, Dr. John Lee in the industrial and systems engineering department at UW-Madison decided to investigate automated driving safety and determine how people can better use their time in vehicles.

Technology can help improve the safety of driving these autonomous vehicles by determining the speed and situations of other vehicles on the road. However, not all cases are the same. According to Lee, “There are some situations where if the drivers are not brought back to the roads, they would probably die.” Therefore, to ensure safety, the system must bring drivers back to the wheels at certain crucial points when the driver would otherwise put themselves or others in danger. There are several types of roads that the system cannot handle currently, such as branch roads and roundabout intersections. By assigning the tier characters to each kind of environment, the system determines whether it should request driver control. For example, when encountering a roundabout intersection, the system only takes care of entering the intersection, but the road to exit needs to be determined by the driver. If the driver is not responsive after requesting, the vehicle would be automatically directed to a safe place and stop, waiting for the driver to take back the wheel. In this way, the system does its best to ensure the driver’s safety.

“An automated vehicle has potential to really transform lives. And it is the time. Everybody has limited time.” — Professor Lee

Currently, there are two major companies developing automated vehicles — Tesla and Waymo — but in two different user modes. Tesla, as we most commonly hear about, is mainly developing cars that can drive themselves, but still need drivers sitting in the driving position. On the other hand, Waymo is more like Lyft without drivers. Users simply book Waymo online and self-driving cars come and pick them up. Lee is doing research that collaborates between Uber and Waymo. The automated vehicles would still need drivers, but with less action needed by these drivers.

Apart from improving the safety of vehicles, this research also investigates how to improve productivity in cars. Traditional vehicles require the full attention of the driver, whereas automated vehicles could free up some time for commuters to achieve other work during the previously occupied time of their commute. Professor Raffaella Sadun from Harvard University is working with Lee to determine the economic productivity of working or relaxing in vehicles. By arranging the configuration in vehicles appropriately, we can expect to reach maximum productivity.

Lee expects that there is a potential in this research for us to change our lives. According to a survey conducted by Lee’s colleague, longer time spent commuting is related to lower levels of happiness. It is the time for us to use technology to not only shorten our commutes, but also improve our happiness during these large portions of our daily lives.

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