With advanced sensors, cars become increasingly capable of driving themselves

By Nic Fleming
New Scientist
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

With his jeans, white trainers and stripy top, Bob is every inch the well-dressed 6-year-old. He's standing in the middle of a hotel parking lot and, scarily, I'm driving straight at him. Instead of hitting the brakes, I put my foot down on the accelerator. With only about 10 yards to go, a row of red lights flashes across my windshield, and there's an urgent, high-pitched beeping sound. An instant later, I am jerked forward as the brakes slam on automatically and the car screeches to a halt just short of Bob's stomach.

This is what Bob is for. The child-size dummy has just helped me test the first in-car system that can sense an imminent collision with pedestrians and brake automatically if the driver doesn't. It is being tested by Volvo Car Corp. in its new S60 model.

The system is the latest in a line of developments made possible by sophisticated sensors based on cameras, radar and lasers. These sensors already provide drivers with adaptive cruise control, which alters a car's speed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front, as well as technology such as semi-autonomous parking systems.

Yet according to Jonas Ekmark, a researcher at Volvo headquarters near Gothenburg, Sweden, this is just the start. He says we are entering an era in which vehicles will also gather real-time information about the weather and highway hazards, using this to improve fuel efficiency and make life less stressful for the driver and safer for all road users. "Our long-term goal is the collision-free traffic system," says Ekmark.

Ultimately, that means bypassing the fallible humans behind the wheel -- by building cars that drive themselves. Alan Taub, vice president for research and development at General Motors, expects to see semi-autonomous vehicles on the road by 2015. They will need a driver to handle busy city streets and negotiate complex intersections, but once on the highway they will be able to steer, accelerate and avoid collisions unaided. A few years later, he predicts, drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel completely: "I see the potential for launching fully autonomous vehicles by 2020."

Japan leads the way

Traffic accidents kill about 37,000 people a year in the United States, with driver error a contributing factor in more than 90 percent of them. But a glimpse of a safer future has come from a trial, completed in Sweden in 2008, of the Slippery Road Information System (SRIS). The system used sensors and computers installed in 100 cars to gather information on the use of brakes, fog lights, windshield wipers and electronic stability systems, as well as weather conditions. Unlike the Volvo system, in which each car uses only information from its own sensors, the cars in the SRIS trial beamed the data they gathered to a central database every five minutes.

A more sophisticated system involving shared data is being deployed in Japan this year. The country has become a world leader in the field with the government's decision to fund a network of infrared, microwave and radio transmitters at the roadside. About 2 million vehicles on Japanese roads can already pick up news on congestion, roadwork, accidents, weather, speed limits and parking availability from these transmitters, broadcasting as part of the Vehicle Information and Communication System (VICS).

Over the next few months, cameras and sensors positioned around 20 major intersections in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture will begin alerting drivers of cars with VICS receivers to potential hazards such as vehicles attempting to merge into their lane or traffic crossing an upcoming intersection. The new setup can also show alerts warning of traffic lights, stop signs and even pedestrians and cyclists. It will be in use at major intersections nationwide by the middle of 2011.

By that time, a similar system designed to operate on major Japanese highways should also be in place to warn when the driver gets too close to the vehicle in front, when vehicles are converging from the side and when there is congestion ahead.

In Europe and the United States, meanwhile, vehicle manufacturers see direct vehicle-to-vehicle communication as a simpler and cheaper solution. They envisage using Wi-Fi links between vehicles to form ad hoc networks that will share information on road conditions, weather and traffic accidents.

The most ambitious of these projects, a collaboration between seven European manufacturers and universities, would also allow up to eight cars a little more than a yard apart driving in convoy, controlled by a lead vehicle operated by a professional driver.

Ordinary drivers would book a place in convoys and hand over control of their car to software on the lead vehicle. Steering, acceleration and braking would be controlled by an on-board computer that uses data sent wirelessly from the lead vehicle, along with information from cameras and radar and laser detectors on the front and rear of the car itself.

Drivers will be able to work, read, watch films or even sleep while their cars are driven for them. "It will be like sitting on a bus or a train," says Ekmark. When the convoy nears an exit at which drivers wish to leave, they can resume control and continue their journey. A test of the convoy system is planned for later this year on test tracks; if successful, a full-fledged demonstration is planned on public roads in Spain in 2011.

Let the Boss drive

What fully autonomous vehicles might be like is hinted at by an experimental car built by a GM-backed team of engineering students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Their "Boss" car earned a $2 million prize in 2007 by outperforming 10 other autonomous vehicles in a simulated urban environment. To win, it had to execute complex maneuvers such as merging into flowing traffic, passing, parking and negotiating intersections, while interacting with other autonomous vehicles and 30 human-driven ones.

Boss's computer builds a model of the immediate environment by processing data from radar, laser sensors, cameras and GPS devices. It then uses this model, along with information such as local traffic rules, to plan the best route and provide the situational awareness the vehicle needs to change lanes safely or to determine whether it has right of way at an intersection. Right now, however, operating Boss requires the equivalent of 10 desktop computers, and miniaturizing the electronics so that they can be hidden away in a normal-size car remains a challenge.

Taub predicts that by about 2020, vehicles like Boss will start to appear on public roads; drivers will be able to disengage totally and hand control over to the car. The question at that point will be whether we will have the nerve to take our hands off the wheel and let the machines take over.

Fleming is a science and technology writer based in London. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com).

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