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Photo of Sandy Pentland Smart Car

Could "smart" cars interpret drivers' actions and warn them of impending danger? Frontiers viewers find out when Sandy Pentland invites Alan Alda to take his driving simulator for a test ride. Following the premier of the Scientific American Frontiers Special Inventing the Future, Alex answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel. Here are viewers' questions and his answers.

Q Do you see a future in which smart vehicles will be able to make decisions on the medical, emotional or psychological state of intending operators, and react, or perhaps that should be not react, accordingly? I ask this question because one hears of so many incidents involving impaired drivers, drivers who suffer seizures etc., and drivers who are in no fit mental state to be behind the wheel of a vehicle.

A Yes, that is exactly the idea...the car should know how you are feeling, and even if you are paying attention. I think that having the car know all about the driver is the only way to make cars really safe, at least in the near future, because completely automatic cars are a long way off.

QWhen will the smart cars be available to the public?

A Some parts of the Smart Car -- the part that tells whether or not you are sleepy -- will be available in Japan in only two years, and here in the U.S. the following year. A really Smart Car will probably take at least five years before they are here in the U.S.

Q Is it possible that if the all of the measures to keep the driver from falling asleep fail, the car could automatically taker over driving or pull over to the side of the road?

A I think that is a really good idea -- and it is practical, because having a car that automatically pulls over and stops is much easier to build than a car that automatically drives itself.

Q I would like to know why we would need smart cars. With the technology we have today no car can think as fast or as well as a human. If a car made driving decisions wouldn't the number of deaths on the road skyrocket? A computer, no matter how well programmed, would for sure make more mistakes on a road than a human driver.

A The problem is that today you have to control every aspect of the car to drive somewhere...and cars are getting more and more complicated. What we want to do is to build into cars the bare minimum of 'smarts,' so you don't have to tell them everything all the time...and so that they have a little bit of sense about what things to tell you when, rather than just having buzzers going off all the time.

Q If you borrowed someone else's smart car, would it be able to tell if you are sleepy even if it doesn't have your picture?

A Yes...everyone looks sleepy in pretty much the same way. For instance, you can tell if someone is sleepy...or happy or sad...even though you don't know them. The car should be able to do the same thing.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.