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Satellite Steering (video)
January 07, 2003

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Interviewee: Christian Gerdes, Stanford University.

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Produced by Jack Penland

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy the U.S. Air Force.

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Designing a steering controller

You know the feeling…you're driving and fighting fatigue to stay on the road. Someday, it might be your car that takes over and keeps you safe.

As this ScienCentral news video reports, engineers have built a car that uses satellites to help you steer.

Steering by Remote

Over 900,000 off-roadway car crashes occurred in the United States in 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Over 350,000 of these crashes caused injuries, and almost 12,000 resulted in death.

But what can be done to prevent drivers from accidentally going off the road? A new steering system being developed by Christian Gerdes of Stanford University’s engineering department may help. And unlike previous systems that take control from the driver, this system can be overridden by the driver at any time. Gerdes says, “The idea is to develop a system that people never want to turn off, and to be certain that it doesn’t hinder the driver in normal or emergency driving.”

How does it work?

Gerdes’s steering system needs three things in order to keep the car on the road: the location of the car, a map of the road the car is traveling, and the ability to steer the car. All this is accomplished using a differential Global Positioning System (GPS) locator, a mapping system, and a steer-by-wire system.

The differential GPS locator determines the position of the car (in Gerdes’s case, a black Corvette). In simple terms, the GPS receiver uses information provided by satellites and a ground station, called the base station. A cell phone or other wireless device is used to “call” the base station. Since the base station knows where it is, it can figure out any error in the satellite signal that is due to the atmosphere. When that correction is made, the new system identifies the position of the car within an inch of its actual location.

But just because the system knows where the car is doesn’t mean the car is on a road or knows where to go. In order to keep the car on the road, a map of the road must be entered into the system. Gerdes says that you only have to drive a road once to enter a map of it.

And unlike the mechanical steering systems used in most of today’s cars, the steer-by-wire system uses electrical signals to turn the wheels. This is what allows Gerdes’s system to be steered remotely.

Altogether, the GPS locator identifies the position of the car and compares the car’s path to the road on the map. If adjustments in the steering need to be made and the driver isn’t steering, the steer-by-wire system makes the adjustments, steering the car to follow the road.

When will it be ready for us?

“It depends on the manufacturers and incorporation of the steer-by-wire system,” says Gerdes. But he thinks these Knight Rider-esque cars might hit the public “as early as five years from now.”

The system needs further testing, and Gerdes wants to add upgrades to keep the driver comfortable, and an indicator to let the driver know when the system is working.

His research was supported by the National Science Foundation, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler.

by Donna Vaughan

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