AUGUST 8, 1997
Engineers in San Diego are demonstrating new technologies designed to automate highway travel. They're building roads and cars that steer, accelerate and brake your vehicle for you. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET/Los Angeles reports.
JEFFREY KAYE: "Look, Ma, no hands" seemed to be the major theme of a transportation technology demonstration in San Diego this week. The showcase was put on by a two-and-a-half-year-old consortium of private companies, government agencies, and universities. The exhibition was a condition of federal funding. Although some of the technology is new, automating automobiles is not a new idea.
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SPOKESMAN: (1939 Worlds Fair Film Clip) Safe distance between cars is maintained by automatic radio control.
JEFFREY KAYE: The concept was presented by General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair. Now, GM is part of a private-public consortium, 80 percent funded by the US government. GM engineer Jim Rillings is the consortium's program manager.
JIM RILLINGS: Our goal is to develop a prototype automated highway system. But more than that, it's really to advance highway automation technologies to improve safety and reduce congestion on highways.
JEFFREY KAYE: Consortium members are using a range of technologies on a variety of vehicles.
RAJESH RAJAMANI, University of California-Berkeley: This car has a communication radio that talks between cars 50 times every second.
TODD JOCHEM, Carnegie Mellon University: These sensors actually monitor the blind spot of the bus for the computer.
JEFFREY KAYE: Radar, lasers and cameras send highway information to on-board computers. The computers control motors, which operate braking, acceleration, and steering. This week's demonstrations took place on a seven and half mile stretch of express lanes on a San Diego freeway. The road had been equipped with buried magnets, which act as guides.
AUTO VOICE: Speed control on.
More cars, more smoothly...
JEFFREY KAYE: One demonstration was of a convoy of cars, traveling as an automated pack, fast, yet close together. The point was to show how to move more cars, more smoothly and safely along highways. Rajesh Rajamani is with the University of California at Berkeley.
RAJESH RAJAMANI: The car is being centered on the lane using the magnets. The computer controls the steering wheel to keep the car centered. Also, the computer uses the radar and the radio system on the car to maintain a spacing of twenty feet, and a speed of about sixty miles per hour from the car in front.
JEFFREY KAYE: Other demonstrations showed automatic lane changes to avoid obstacles. And a garbage truck was programmed to automatically pick up highway debris.
Is an automated highway system the answer to America's problems?
JEFFREY KAYE: But as dazzling as this technological wizardry may be for some, there are those who question its value and expense. And critics want to put the brakes on development of the so- called automated highway system. The Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is a virtual monument to the car culture. That's where we met with Catherine Burke, an expert in transportation and innovation at the University of Southern California. Burke says an automated highway system is not the answer to America's transportation problems.
CATHERINE BURKE, University of Southern California: They're trying to come up with a quick solution based on highways. And what we need is somebody to think about the overall picture; what do we need to move people and goods in urban areas?
JEFFREY KAYE: But transportation planners say automation is just one piece of a puzzle. Dick Bishop of the U.S. Department of Transportation oversees the consortium for the federal government.
DICK BISHOP, U.S. Department of Transportation: In some areas automation is not the answer. In other areas it might be just the thing to increase the capacity of the highway, respond to the needs of the public, and at the same time maintain the land use goals and the mobility goals.
JEFFREY KAYE: If automation is to make mobility safe and efficient, it's got to work. And Catherine Burke says there are many unanswered questions about the technology itself.
CATHERINE BURKE: What happens if a tanker, you know, jack-knifes, and it hits this automated lane where you can't even get out of the way. As far as I know, nobody's worked out how to do an interchange. Not everybody wants to go in a straight line. Some people want to turn.
JEFFREY KAYE: Getting from one highway to the next?
CATHERINE BURKE: Right. The other issue, that is a technical issue, is what happens when you exit?
JEFFREY KAYE: Burke says there could be bottlenecks when automated cars leave their designated lanes.
AUTO VOICE: Approaching destination.
RAJESH RAJAMANI: That is a wake up call for the driver.
JEFFREY KAYE: Experts do have some answers. For example, to the question about a jack knifed truck.
RAJESH RAJAMANI: There's two responses possible. One is if there is no obstacle in the next lane, the convoy would make a lane change. Alternatively, the platoon would stop before we hit the obstacle.
JEFFREY KAYE: Who would be faster in that circumstance, a human or a computer?
RAJESH RAJAMANI: The computer would be much faster than a human.
JEFFREY KAYE: But as to the problem of potential bottlenecks when automated cars leave the highways, Rajamani said research remains to be done. There are many such unanswered questions, but engineers point out the new technology has useful applications short of full automation. The San Diego demonstration showed trucks and buses equipped with warning devices.
TODD JOCHEM: So you can feel when the front tires hit that shoulder, the alert goes off to tell you you need to pay attention now.
A high tech cruise control
JEFFREY KAYE: Todd Jochem is a scientist with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He says that while it may be decades before technology replaces drivers, consumers are gradually being prepared for automation.
TODD JOCHEM: We think that probably the average person--average consumer--is going to be a little apprehensive about going from his car now, to a car where he hits a button and it drives by itself. So what we need to do is two things. We need to make sure that the drivers are comfortable with the technology. And at the same time we need to make sure the technology is capable And the way to do that is to first deploy the systems in a warning capacity.
It's important to phrase this kind of stuff in terms of like a cruise control. Everybody has cruise control. Everybody's comfortable hitting those buttons. They just need to get comfortable hitting the buttons to adjust the sensitivity of their warning, or adjust their headway gap, things like that. If you do that in small steps, I think people will recognize there is a benefit.
JEFFREY KAYE: Proponents of automated highway transportation systems see a promising future. They hope public demonstrations like this will spur support for continued federal funding. Congress will consider authorizing more money later this year.
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