How about car that will drive you home? U.S. studies robot auto for tomorrow's commuters

October 15, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

GAITHERSBURG -- You're at work and your teen-ager needs to borrow the car, so you start it up, punch a few keys and send it heading home with no one at the wheel.

After driving late into the night on a trip to Florida you nod off, but your family sedan gently takes over while you snooze. Or say you drink too much and woozily edge behind the wheel. Not so fast, buddy. Your car sniffs alcohol on your breath, cuts off the driver's controls and drives you to a pre-programmed destination.

Computer-controlled vehicles capable of these time- and life-saving feats are still at least 15 or 20 years away from appearing in auto dealer showrooms, transportation specialists say.

But engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology gave some reporters a glimpse of commuting's brave new world by using a computer to remotely pilot a partially robotic vehicle along the institute's back roads here yesterday.

Chuck Giauque, an institute technician wearing a gray sweat shirt and jeans, sat in the driver's seat of a specially-modified humvee, the successor to the old Army jeep, and pushed a big green button.

Then he grabbed the roll bar over his head with both hands, pushed the accelerator and the 2,500-lb, four-wheel-drive humvee sped off, tracking as smoothly up the curving roadway as if it were held on rails.

Mr. Giauque was on board to make sure some mechanical or computer failure didn't send the $125,000 vehicle -- mounted with four television cameras, computer equipment, antennas, radio receivers and a radar device -- swerving into the institute's goose pond.

Back in the basement of a nearby building, computer specialists Henry Schneiderman and Marilyn Nashman watched the scene broadcast by the NIST humvee's forward-pointing camera on a series of televisions.

A computer takes the video image and sorts out the gently V-shaped contrast pattern of the standard traffic lines painted along the side and the center of the road. It latches onto the converging lines, and automatically keeps the vehicle in the center of them.

The system is still primitive. "Anything that's hazardous, we don't see," said Karl Murphy, the engineer in charge of the vehicle. "If you go out and lay down in the road it would just take your image and say, 'You don't look like a lane image,' and just ignore you." That means you get run over.

When three deer bolted across the road, Mr. Giauque eased off the accelerator. Left to itself, the computer would have blithely collided with them.

On the other hand, Mr. Murphy and his team have taught the humvee the difficult task of ignoring random shadows from telephone poles and bumps in the terrain. Neither was the vehicle fazed when a flock of geese left guano dotting the road or during a recent heavy rain.

"It does remarkably well," Mr. Murphy said.

High-IQ vehicles aren't expected on the roads any time soon, said Maris Juberts, head of intelligent vehicle research at NIST.

But in the next few years, he said, auto manufacturers will probably begin equipping some cars with crash alert systems, which use radar or sonar to warn drivers of an impending collision. A few years further down the road, so to speak, is a crash avoidance system, where the vehicle would sense an impending collision and automatically brake or swerve to avoid it.

Safety and reliability are the key problems in developing a fully "intelligent" vehicle for the commercial market, Mr. Juberts

Adverse weather, such as snow, would wipe out the typical visual cues his computers are trained to spot. But engineers predict they can overcome those hurdles. Drivers can identify the vague outlines of a roadway in heavy snow. Someday, Mr. Juberts predicted, computers will be able to, too.

The best way to protect against the sudden catastrophic failure of a computer system, Mr. Juberts said, is probably to make sure each of a car's "intelligent" gadgets -- its miniature cameras, radar, computers and the rest -- have backup systems.

Once the bugs are out of the technology, the possibilities are intriguing.

"Many of the accidents on highways, which cause congestion, are caused by human-type error," Mr. Juberts said. "This type of system would just about completely eliminate them."

Not only would an intelligent vehicle be safer to drive, it could cut down on congestion and make more efficient use of the nation's existing road network.

Because computers could control a car much more precisely than a human driver, the vehicle could safely travel at highway speeds just a few feet away from other cars to the front, to the sides and to the rear.

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