In the field of self-driving cars, algorithms for controlling lane changes are an important topic of study. But most existing lane-change algorithms have one of two drawbacks: Either they rely on detailed statistical models of the driving environment, which are difficult to assemble and too complex to analyze on the fly; or they’re so simple that they can lead to impractically conservative decisions, such as never changing lanes at all. At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation tomorrow, researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) will present a new lane-change algorithm that splits the difference. It allows for more aggressive lane changes than the simple models do but relies only on immediate information about other vehicles’ directions and velocities to make decisions. One standard way for autonomous vehicles to avoid collisions is to calculate buffer zones around the other vehicles in the environment. The buffer zones describe not only the vehicles’ current positions but their likely future positions within some time frame. Planning lane changes then becomes a matter of simply staying out of other vehicles’ buffer zones. For any given method of computing buffer zones, algorithm designers must prove that it guarantees collision avoidance, within the context of the mathematical model used to describe traffic patterns. That proof can be complex, so the optimal buffer zones are usually computed in advance. During operation, the autonomous vehicle then calls up the precomputed buffer zones that correspond to its situation. That approach depends on a mathematically efficient method of describing buffer zones, so that the collision-avoidance proof can be executed quickly. And that’s what the MIT researchers developed.