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The Year in Science: Technology 1997

Motion is the Root of All EvilLook, Ma

By Robert PoolJanuary 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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The twenty-first century came early to a 7.6-mile stretch along Interstate 15 north of San Diego. One morning last summer, several cars and a bus sped down the freeway in a tight line, like boxcars on a train, with only a few feet between each pair of bumpers. Even as the vehicles changed lanes and swerved past obstacles in concert, the drivers had little to do but watch the scenery, sip some coffee, and read the paper.

Although this scene won’t be coming to a highway near you soon, the technology being demonstrated over four days last August may someday endow our cars with the wherewithal to do the driving themselves. The National Automated Highway System Consortium—which includes General Motors, Carnegie Mellon, the California Department of Transportation, and other organizations—with $160 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation, is developing a host of new technologies to automate the highways. They include an adaptive cruise control that senses the speed of the car in front and adjusts accordingly, a communications system that allows vehicles on the highway to communicate their intentions to each other, and two systems to keep cars in their lanes—one with magnets embedded in the highway, and another with cameras that can see road lines.

The group still has some technical wrinkles to iron out—those computerized cameras can’t yet reliably detect lane markers in all sorts of lighting conditions—but researchers are confident they can overcome the technical hurdles. Although there are still things we can’t do very well, the individual technologies are mostly straightforward, says Jim Rillings, a General Motors research engineer and the consortium’s manager. The tested vehicles managed to go a total of 10,000 miles among them without incident.

Automating the highway system would dramatically decrease congestion and increase safety, Rillings says. We still kill more than 40,000 people a year on the highways, he notes, and 90 percent of those crashes have human error as a cause. Computers never get sleepy, never get distracted, and never drink too much. The biggest barrier, he says, will be getting people to accept the technology.

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