Driverless Cars – the Future is Near

On September 7, I had the opportunity to ride in a Tesla Model X along the North Avenue Smart Corridor in Atlanta during the ConnectATL Conference. I was joined by Travis Allen, a member of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Advisory Committee on Aging.

Chris Holloway (our driver), Katie Perumbeti, Travis Allen, and Rebecca Van Dyken stand in front of an autonomous Tesla
Excited to get into the Tesla Model X and begin our ride. From left to right: Chris Holloway (our driver), Katie Perumbeti, Travis Allen, and Rebecca Van Dyken

Mr. Allen was born in 1953. After our ride ended, I asked him if he ever thought he would experience something like this. “I never anticipated this in my lifetime,” he admitted, but it was an “unexpected pleasure”.

So, I bet you’re wondering, “How does it work?”

Before I rode along the Smart Corridor, I assumed that smart technology along the road would somehow control the car and that the car had to be specially designed by the same technology company. As it turns out, the car is automated on its own accord – any car of any brand can drive itself on any well-marked road if the car is equipped with automated driving technology!

The Tesla Model X has 12 sensors around the outside of the vehicle that communicate any obstacles to the car’s computer. If a stopped car or other obstacle is detected, the vehicle can stop itself or alert the driver. While in automated drive mode, these sensors can also detect clearly marked lane lines and stay within them.

There are still some limitations. For example, the car can’t yet tell what color a traffic signal is, so a human in the driver’s seat is vital to stop the car at red lights if there isn’t another vehicle stopped in front.

To create Atlanta’s North Avenue Smart Corridor, sensors were installed at traffic lights and crossing spots. These communicate with an app (TravelSafely) that can be installed on a smart phone and on city traffic operators’ computers.

These smart corridors can also be useful in the event of an emergency. An emergency response vehicle equipped with the technology can signal to the sensor at a stoplight to turn the light from green to red. This allows for a safer passage through the intersection and, ultimately, a faster response time.

Public transportation riders and advocates will be excited to learn that city buses will also be able to communicate to the sensor to turn traffic lights to green, helping them stay on schedule.

Overall, Mr. Allen and I were impressed. He noted that if someone “gave me some money, I’d buy the dark gray [Tesla].”

Watch the video for a quick explanation, a very fast acceleration, and a no-hands(!) driving demo.

Arin Yost

Arin is a Program Analyst at the Atlanta Regional Commission, where his work focuses on health disparities and equity across the Atlanta region.