Drivers can sit back, enjoy ride Autopilot: Autonomous-vehicle technology has come a long way, but there are still some problems to work out.


Don't be alarmed if the driver in the teal 1996 Oldsmobile minivan zipping along beside you on Interstate 79 outside of Pittsburgh has both hands cradled behind his head.

It's probably Dean Pomerleau on his way to work.

Pomerleau, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, doesn't have to steer the van. It has an autopilot system, guided by a video camera mounted next to the rear-view mirror that keeps the vehicle on course while keeping a sharp "eye" out for potential trouble spots.

He doesn't have to worry about another van cutting into his lane, or about running up on the car in front or that tractor-trailer slipping into his blind spot from behind. All those things are handled by the computer tied into the video camera, a couple of radar systems and a laser scanner. The minivan can drive itself.

Pomerleau has logged more than 10,000 miles of hands-free driving in the van.

"It's a weird experience," he says. "It takes about an hour to get comfortable, but then you just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride."

60 years in the making

The "smart highway" has been talked about for 60 years. Visitors to the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair saw a film promoting the day when autonomous vehicles drove themselves without operator intervention. Now, says Pomerleau, that day is just down the road.

"Autonomous-vehicle technology has come a long way in the past decade," he says, "but it is not quite here."

There are still a few bugs in the system. Real bugs. When Pomerleau drove the van from Pittsburgh to New Hampshire, insects splattered on the windshield and confused the camera that acts as the driver's eyes to keep the vehicle on the road.

On another occasion, reflections off the road during a heavy rain at night caused problems for the van's vision system.

The hands-off driving technology exhibited on the Carnegie Mellon van is probably 96 percent reliable, according to Pomerleau.

That's not good enough. To gain acceptance in the United States, where liability laws are among the strictest in the world, the automated car and intelligent-highway systems will need to be 99.999 percent reliable, according to David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

"Hands-off driving is inevitable," says Cole, "but it is probably still 10 or 15 years down the road."

The Carnegie Mellon van was one of five vehicles, including two transit buses, fitted with autopilot systems that participated in a $200 million intelligent-highway demonstration last August funded by the federal government. The demonstration was held along a 7.6-mile stretch of I-15 just north of San Diego.

Vehicles cruised along the test course guided by magnetic devices buried in the road that sent signals to magnetometers bolted under their front bumpers.

The equipment kept the cars on course even during the tightest curves. Advanced cruise-control systems transmitted a radar beam to keep an "eye" on the traffic ahead. If the car ahead slowed, the test car responded accordingly.

The demonstration was the accumulation of a seven-year research effort headed by the National Automated Highway System Consortium, a partnership composed of industry, the government and academia.

The research was aimed at the problem of overcrowding on U.S. highways. About 200 million cars are on the road -- twice as many as in 1970, but only half the predicted number 20 years from now. In cities around the world, rush-hour traffic is becoming so heavy that a 10-mile commute can take hours.

The several billion hours a year Americans spend tied up in traffic translates into more accidents, higher costs of doing business, increased pollution, longer waits for emergency vehicles to get to an accident site, and a fairly new phenomenon of road rage, which has led to some highway shootings. Compounding the problem is the increasing cost of building new highways -- by some estimates $100 million, or more, a mile.

Intelligent highways might reduce the need for new construction by handling twice as many cars. They would move on autopilot at highway speed, bumper to bumper.

"The technology is impressive and well within the realm of possibility," says Cole. But it was a little too far out for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is ending its funding for smart-road research.

The emphasis is being shifted from roads to cars. Making them smarter might reduce the number of accidents and highway deaths. Other technologies are being designed to ease gridlock and make highways more efficient, according to Roger W. Gilroy, a spokesman for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a public-private partnership to guide research and development activities.

Options in the future

Options available on future cars will likely include blind-spot detectors, a vision system that can see through fog, and an intelligent cruise control, an audible system that sends out a warning to a drowsy driver that the car is about to run off the road.

An option likely to be popular among parents with teen-age drivers is an electronic device to avoid spin-outs. If a vehicle is going into a curve too fast, the system automatically applies the brakes.

Sending out SOS

And, if everything fails, a mayday device linked to the global XTC positioning satellites can send out a distress call, giving the exact location of an accident, even if the driver is unconscious.

This is not 21st-century futurism, according to Richard Bishop, the former government program manager for the National Automated Highway System Consortium. "Some of these products are already on the market," he says.

One is a radar system that warns drivers if something is in the road ahead. "They have been using it on heavy trucks for a couple of years and it will transition to cars in a couple of years," Bishop says.

To keep traffic flowing, electronic scanners are allowing commuters to pay highway tolls without slowing.

Smart signs warn drivers of congestion ahead and suggest alternative routes.

During winter months, snowplows are already being dispersed to parts of I-70 in Western Maryland by hockey puck-size sensors implanted in the road surface that can tell when the road will freeze and needs salting.

Price of progress

Best of all, all this technology could be affordable.

Take the driver-warning system developed by Carnegie Mellon that alerts a drowsy driver if the car is about to run off the road.

"Ten years ago that would have cost a million dollars," says Charles Thorpe, manager of the the university's automated-vehicle program. "Five year ago it was $30,000. Today it's $10,000. Our aim is to get it down to $200. We think that's possible."

Automakers around the world are paying close attention to the developing technologies, Cole says. "If it can be introduced for -- $250 or less, the industry knows it can expect a 25 percent market penetration."

'Part of future'

"It will be like anti-lock brakes and air bags," he says. "They started out costing more than $1,000, now they are down to about $100, and anti-lock brakes are standard on most cars.

"A lot of this may seem like science fiction," Cole says, "but it going to be part of our future."

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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