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

Sun Journal

June 15, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

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.

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