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Look Ma, No Hands
September 30, 1999
image: California Department of Public Transportation

One of the benefits mass transit users have over drivers is not having to pay attention to the road. But in the not too distant future, it might be possible to own a car where all you have to do is get on the highway—and it does the rest. It’d be like hitching a ride with Herbie the Love Bug or K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider.

The "driverless car" developed by researchers at the University of Arizona looks like a junker, but it’s really a high-tech prototype vehicle that can essentially drive itself. "[It’s] an intelligent vehicle because it has a lot of computational power, as well as machine vision, as well as sensors to do a lot of things that a human operator would normally do," said Pitu Mirchandani, one of two scientists heading the project.

Race for a Driverless Car

The Arizona researchers aren’t the only folks tinkering with the idea of automated autos. A system developed at the University of California at Berkeley uses roadway magnets which are embedded into the highway. Their car uses sensors and cameras to help itself "decide" what to do in normal highway traffic conditions.

Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University’s NavLab project are also designing a number of robot vehicles for both highway and off-road use. These vehicles rely on a variety of high-tech equipment, such as onboard scanning laser rangefinders, sonars, radar, and stereo vision systems, as well as detailed elevation maps. This navigation system allows the vehicle to both avoid obstacles and recognize landmarks.

Another approach being developed at Ohio State University’s Center for Intelligent Transportation Research relies on a radar reflective stripe system developed by 3M to help guide the cars. The vehicles would also detect when to stop or change lanes in reaction to other vehicles. The Arizona car also uses radar and video components developed at Carnegie-Mellon to locate objects ahead and stay within the lane, as well as an onboard computer to adjust the car’s speed and steering. Radar or magnetic beacons would need to be placed on the roadway about every 200 meters or so to keep the car on course. Mirchandani said a GPS system could eventually be used for navigation, or perhaps a ready-made CD with electronic coordinates.

Wake Me When We’re There

image: California Department of Public Transportation

The first generation of automated car systems are all designed to be used only on highways. A driver would enter a highway and then put the car on autopilot, traveling in an "intelligent" lane with a minimum speed posted. But the benefits go beyond relaxing behind the wheel. Engineers say the system would reduce traffic, automobile accidents and road rage. It would also help highways accommodate more cars.

One of the first applications, however, might be for trucks. Mirchandani envisions convoys of trucks on the road, with the front driver being in control and the others following – but not actually driving. "If the driver in the lead truck gets tired, another truck can take over at the front of the line and the first driver can just fall in line and sleep while his truck does the driving," he said. This might make the roads safer for other vehicles and would also allow the trucks to move close together, increasing speed and efficiency.

"The same thing can also work in terms of buses," said Mirchandani. "We can have a tandem, a whole series of buses going on the highway from point A to point B so we can easily build larger buses, like trains on the highway so to speak."

image: California Department of Public Transportation

Although Mirchandani estimates the technology to bring automated cars to the highway is only five years away, driving on side streets is another story. "Driving on surface streets is a lot more complicated and we are not there," he said. "It’s going to take several more years before we can even think of driving an automated vehicle on surface streets."

Until the driverless car is ready to hit the road, commuters will either be stuck in traffic or be forced the take clean, cheap and efficient public transportation.

Elsewhere on the Web

Work on the automated highway system by the National Automated Highway System Consortium is in the process of being terminated by the USDOT. However, individual Consortium members remain very much interested in the concept of AHS.

ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) America

The Federal Highway Administration’s Automated Highway Systems site

Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH)

Ohio State University Center for Intelligent Transportation Research

by STN2

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