Is Knoxville ready for automated traffic?

Shannon CareyFountain City

Are you ready to give up control of your car to a computer?

If you’re like me, your answer is no, but city of Knoxville traffic engineering chief Jeff Branham thinks it’s possible that everyone would be safer that way.

Branham and colleague Ernie Pierce were the keynote speakers at the Fountain City Business and Professional Association meeting May 10. The pair challenged commonly held ideas of traffic safety and gave an update of city efforts to update, automate and connect the traffic signal system.

Branham quoted lots of statistics, but the takeaway is that 94 percent of car crashes are caused by human error.

“The real problem out there is human decision-making,” he said.

By comparison, Google’s self-driving cars have been on the road since 2009 and have reported only 16 crashes, but half of those were non-damaging accidents that people would not normally report, and all those were caused by, you guessed it, human error.

Branham said most people won’t choose to go for a fully automated car, but partial automation, also known as driver-assist features, can help drivers stay in their lane and avoid collisions.

“Maybe these cars are not so bad after all,” Branham said. “I encourage you to be open-minded about these new automated features.”

Pierce followed with a rundown of the city’s efforts to keep pace with the traffic needs of the future. A state grant with a city match has provided $7 million for improvements to the traffic signal system along Broadway, Kingston Pike and Chapman Highway, plus new automated parking meters downtown. The traffic signal improvements include laying fiber optic cable to connect all traffic signals and make them remotely accessible by folks in the city’s traffic engineering division.

“Before this upgrade, I had traffic signal controllers on the street that were 30 years old,” said Pierce.

The parking meters are solar-powered, use wifi and accept cards. They even have sensors that detect when a car is present. Pierce said that later modifications will enable drivers to find available parking spaces with a smartphone app, and even pay the meter remotely if they’re about to run out of time.

Pierce praised Mayor Madeline Rogero for seeing the importance of improving traffic infrastructure.

“She understands that if we don’t have a good traffic system in the city that all these things people are excited about will go away because this won’t be a place that people want to be,” he said.

John Fugate said next month’s speaker will be Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas. The FCBPA meets at noon every second Wednesday in the fellowship hall of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City. All are welcome, and lunch is $10.

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