Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vehicles that drive themselves

The illustrious Road Warrior, (Dan Hartzell), of The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa, penned a news article that appeared Monday, July 24th, 2011 that spoke of 'gadgets' introduced over the years by the auto industry that had made driving easier and caused him to question whether drivers are as responsible today as in the past.

The Warrior's headline was "What's next, cars that drive themselves?"

It got us to thinking that, based on what we've seen in the transit and trucking and even the rail industry over the past several decades, the answer may well be "Yes." And it may not just be commercial vehicles that provide transportation independent of driver interaction.

We recall seeing decades ago, a Popular Mechanics magazine ‘vision issue’ illustrating how automated highways were in our future where drivers would queue up and enter ‘tracks’ where they and their passengers would travel comfortably, safety and efficiently, in caravans of automobiles – almost like passenger trains – along long stretches of highway. Well, these never materialized but are such visions impossible?

We've been attending the Transportation Research Board (TRB) conferences now for many years and one of the research tracks has been indeed auto-drive vehicles. The TRB works on research and demonstration projects year in and year out in colleges and universities not only in the U.S. but across the Globe and meets once a year in Washington D.C. to review the previous year's research. Hundreds of panels of speakers and presenters review literally thousands of research papers on every possible aspect of transportation including all surface modes from pedestrian and bike to high speed rail.

It is an inspiring week of academic excellence on a subject that touches every one of our lives: transportation.

Following the path of the 'driver less' vehicle studies, there are ongoing demonstrations by using automated vehicles that maneuver through a simulated streetscape safely. Many are city transit vehicle experiments where buses run along ‘tracks’ – pavement-level tracks or sensors, not raised rails - built into the street surface providing a path or course or travel. Sets of sensors or tracks at intersections arrange for vehicles to ‘dock’ automatically or, on demand, to pick up waiting passengers or allow people to disembark.
Closer to home - and far more realistic and practical - the Lindenwold High Speed line which brings folks to and from Philadelphia and central New Jersey was originally engineered and designed to operate automatically. It IS a light rail operation, on a fixed guideway, and the trains themselves travel along at predetermined speeds, slowing down and stopping at stations automatically without the need for human intervention. Built in the 1950’s it was an amazingly sophisticated advanced designed system – years ahead of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) on the West Coast which was designed to be fully automated as well but had some inherent flaws from the start.
The Lindenwold line operates flawlessly but from the start was "manned" as passengers reportedly were nervous and refused to board a train that had no operator on board. So it does have operators who sit ready to take control if things go awry and, as far as we know, they seldom have a need to as the system operates very well on its own - as designed. BTW, the last time we looked at their operation, they were the largest users of Susan B. Anthony coins in the US as their fare paying equipment – again unmanned at stations – were designed to accept these coins (and none otther) which you obtain at the stations through vending machines. The coins are cycled through the system over and over and eventually wear out and have to be replaced through the US Mint.
The reasons for this broad experimentation in driver less vehicles are several. One is safety. It is meant to take the human propensity for error and inconsistency (driver fatigue, substance abuse, and a more recent phenomena, cellular 'phone use, text messaging etc) out of the operating equation. Another is efficiency. If a vehicle is operated the same way consistently, at constant speeds without variation, energy use can be minimized and wear and tear on hardware reduced. Finally of course, is cost. In transit's case, 85% of the cost of operating is labor – basically drivers with some maintenance in there also. Having few operators in the systems saves a bundle.
We have used 'people movers’ at airports that seemingly operate independent of human interaction. However, while there may not be anyone on board these vehicles, which are basically light rail operations for the most part, there is a central control where people are monitoring the systems and making sure no one gets stuck in the closing doors. Still, these systems operate from point A to point B regularly, 24/7, without operators physically on board.
As far as automobiles go, there is a federal initiative to work with manufacturers to implement 'smart car' systems and 'smart highways' across the U.S. It was supposed to be completed by 2009 but we think the economy interrupted the plan's progress. All vehicle manufacturers from Ford, GM and Chrysler to Honda, Toyota and BMW are cooperating as eventually, only such 'smart' vehicles as stipulated by the federal government, will be allowed to be sold in the US as of a certain date. Basically, this is the notion of putting GPS and other ‘smart’ vehicle recognition features in cars that sensors along highways can ‘read’ and communicate with. The outcomes are many including way finding, speed control, and, Lord save us, mileage tolling for travel and insurance purposes.
There is also the 'big brother' concept of reading certain maintenance conditions of vehicles and alerting drivers if there is some safety problem or the vehicle needs service. The presentation we heard about this back in 2008 at a national meeting was pretty impressive. It was another way of approaching funding highway maintenance while injecting safety and efficiency controls into travel and commuting. Drivers would be alerted automatically if traffic ahead of them could be avoided with alternative driving routes. Toll booths would be eliminated also removing those untimely delays and drivers would be billed or have their accounts drawn down on like EZ Pass. How do you get back more yield from investment in the national highway system? You make it smarter and more automated.
The trucking industry has been involved in this effort for several years as well with major trucking firms working with government to help document vehicle weights, distance traveled and speed on highways fitted with sensors that read such data as the vehicles roll by. With such systems you can eliminate freight truck weigh station stops and reduce travel delays and monitoring of truck operations for safety and productivity purposes. If you can automate truck driver logs, it makes honest people out of a lot of operators at the same time.
Space age thinking? Too far distant in the future to be realistic? We are not sure. But given the technological advances in this information age we are living in, it does make a lot of sense to apply these new thoughts and ideas to old infrastructure.
How do you improve transit, trucking, rail and highways? Make 'em smart.


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