Technology

On the Road With Ralph

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Dean Pomerleau (not Dean Moriarty) sits behind the wheel in this photo, but he’s not driving. Pomerleau, an engineer, and graduate student Todd Jochem, both of Carnegie Mellon, rode in this minivan from Pittsburgh to San Diego. The driver was Ralph, short for Rapidly Adapting Lateral Position Handler, a computerized steering program. Ralph, which lives in a laptop computer, examines images fed from a forward-looking camera attached to the rearview mirror, searching for lines, reflectors, oil spots, and other common road markings it has been programmed to recognize. Ralph navigates by controlling a motor attached to the steering wheel. Although one of the researchers always sat with his hands just inches from the wheel, Ralph handled more than 98 percent of the 2,500 highway miles in the journey, at an average speed of 63 miles an hour. Aside from Ralph’s urge to veer toward exit ramps (the solid white line leading to the ramp occasionally overrode the dotted line along the highway as a cue), the experience was much more relaxing than we expected it to be, says Pomerleau. A fully automated driving system won’t hit the roads anytime soon, but a version of Ralph is being converted into an alarm to wake up drivers who veer off the road when there’s no exit ramp around. Pomerleau expects it to be available in about four years.

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