2017-05-24 15:56:52 UTC
Earlier this week I was on my regular commute. It is mostly on two-lane (one each direction) country roads. These have the benefit that traffic volume is predictable and only a factor in a couple of spots. The down side is that an accident will shut down the road pretty easily. Once the problem is obvious the solution is to bail out, making a technically illegal U-Turn and taking an alternate route, typically adding fifteen minutes or so, depending on the precise location.
So traffic came to a spot at a place that could mean a train, as my route crosses over the old B&O tracks, or an accident. A train can take a while, but then you are fine. This was an accident. I could tell by the flow pattern. But I could also tell that I could get through, since traffic was moving, albeit intermittently. The crash turned out to be here:
I got there pretty early in the cycle. My lane was completely blocked, but the other side was open. Police and fire had not yet arrived, but there were enough people helping out that my stopping and getting out would have been merely getting in the way. One of the people that had stopped was driving a big utility vehicle of some sort. He stopped in a good place, set his yellows flashing, and got out and directed traffic. He did a good job, alternating so that both directions got past with as little delay as could be hoped for. He had absolutely no legal authority, but he was doing what needed to be done, and the drivers tacitly accepted this and followed his directions. I got through with minimal hassle, about five to ten minutes later than I ordinarily would. The fire and police passed me going the other way soon after that.
What I want to know is, in our brave new world of fully automated cars, how does this scenario play out? If I had been in a Google car with no auxiliary controls, could the car have figured this situation out and acted appropriately? We are piously assured that automated cars follow the letter of the law. I crossed over a double yellow line to get around the wrecks. I did this according to the directions of just some guy who took it upon himself to direct me. A law-abiding automated car would what? Just sat there? Even bailing out entirely and using an alternate route would have involved that illegal U-Turn. What was in fact a ten minute delay at most would seem to turn into hours at a standstill.
There may be a better answer, but what is it? Unfortunately, most of the press reports on automated cars are breathless re-writes of corporate press releases. No one seems to ask this sort of question, lest they be taken off the list for the next press release. I would expect that if the developers had a good answer for this, they would include it in the press release.
Richard R. Hershberger