Automatic Driving (Cars) has safety advantages; technology is here

Entered by Ken Wear 9-11-03

Automatic driving should be just over the horizon. Imagine being able to play games with the family, or give undivided attention to the passing scenery, or sleeping along the way so you could drive straight through and feel good on arrival. Automatic driving will make these pleasures a reality.

Beyond that, with cruise control and the increasing number of electronic distractions, there are more demands for driver attention. A certain amount of distraction is helpful in preventing the hypnotic effect of sameness and monotony, but each distraction gives an additional opportunity to let attention slip from the main task at hand, with a consequent lapse in safety. So automatic driving would also improve safety and can be justified on that grounds alone.

I suppose for several years we must limit automatic driving to special places such as the inner lane of multi-lane expressways. But, as the technology is refined, as the public becomes more comfortable with it, as the percentage of properly equipped cars increases, and as the mileage of suitable roadway increases, it would become the norm. Now seems the time to start since every technological need is presently available. So now we must muster the will, prepare the standards and proceed with manufacture of automobiles and development of roads.

What I visualize is a series of passive (or solar powered) transponders along the roadbed that will be triggered by radio energy from the car and broadcast, in response, certain digital information needed for vehicle control. Such as required speed, curvature of roadbed ahead, adjustment of vehicle position with respect to the line of transponders, distance to the next positional marker, and marker identification or number to interface with the programmed route. Transponders need project from the surface no more than enough to expose their antenna (inside their radomes) so they need not become impediments that must be dodged -- perhaps placed in the center of the lane. And, in most nearly-straight roadways transponders could be placed some 500 feet or farther apart; in few locations would they be closer than about 300 feet apart. (Or, alternatively, a laser could read information encoded on reflectors mounted alongside the roadbed since each inch in reflector width enables reading 1000 bits of data per line at 60 mph.) And the automatic driving lanes would be alongside lanes for manual control, which the driver would use at interchanges to change highway or stop for such needs as eating or refueling. Emergency provision may be provided by an auxiliary or safety lane, so the roadway system would consist of, from left to right, safety lane, automatic lane and manual lanes.

Because of the automatic control, distance between vehicles could be relaxed, so a single lane for automatic driving would safely accommodate vehicles closer together and thus allow more vehicles than is presently accepted as safe. Drivers could pursue activities not related to vehicle control so long as they remained in close proximity to the control seat and in a state of alertness to resume control of their car should need arise. Of course, should a warning aboard the car be ignored, or not acted upon quickly enough, that vehicle would automatically be routed to the safety lane and brought to a stop. And the driver would then, after addressing the reason for stopping, need to manually reenter the vehicle stream and return to automatic control or exit to the manual lanes.

Safety seems the paramount concern. Forward and backward on-board radars seem necessary -- with the forward and backward horns tippable to assist in exiting into or returning from the safety lane or returning to the stream of manually controlled cars. Safety and cruising lanes for automatic driving should likely be to the extreme left. Non-equipped vehicles would be barred from entering the vehicle stream for automatic control although equipped vehicles must be allowed to enter that stream, if only momentarily, under manual control. And, to avoid the heavier-duty roadbed construction for 18-wheelers and other heavy vehicles, they should be barred from the automatic lane; so the safety lane need be little more than a simple coating for rain run-off and rut control.

Distance or destination warnings must be settable by the driver before entering the automatic lane so he can automatically exit to the safety lane or manually exit to the manual lane. And fuel requirements must be anticipated in order to avoid unnecessary exits to the safety lane; in fact, the on-board computer should estimate fuel needs for the route set in and require either fueling to an adequate level or setting in of exits for refueling. (Maps showing codes for fueling areas, rest areas, sources for food and lodging, etc., will no doubt become available as roadways are prepared.)

I don't see a need to couple automatic control with satellite positioning. And the on-board computer may require that all necessary data be pre-entered while the vehicle is stopped as a condition for switching to automatic control.

With time and acceptance and use of automatic driving, it will predictably reach the point so many cars are in the automatic lane that it will be difficult to enter the lane without adjustment of the gap between cars before and after the position of the car wishing to enter the automatic lane. More elaborate programming! And there may become times when entering the automatic lane is barred because of heavy usage. Then, the fellow in the safety lane will be handicapped in continuing his trip, so there will be a premium on keeping his vehicle in top-notch condition and adequately fueled.

With large scale usage the safety lane, while it will be mostly limited to mechanical and electronic difficulties, could become the source of accidents due to dangerous closeness of stopped cars, so it is necessary to restrict its use. However the restriction is imposed, a driver must be allowed to voluntarily enter the safety lane should he feel the need, although such needs as food, sleep and toilet should be part of his trip planning and drowsiness can be accommodated by simply relying on the automatic guidance of his vehicle.

It is my hope the automobile manufacturers and motoring public provide the impetus to start converting to automatic driving. I would not wish a bureaucracy to assert its authority at this point because the decades of squabbling and delay would seriously dampen enterprenurial interest. (Recall the years of delay in introducing television because of intervention by the bureaucracy.) Private toll roads may need to be part of the mix.

I can become excited at the thought of driving from Michigan to Texas wrapped in my own interests until the machine signaled the need for gas or the approach of a scenic wonder or customer I had programmed as a stopping point.

Considering the topic further, I favor reflectors along the road even though there will be a safety lane between driving lane and the wall on which they are mounted. There will be times when weather conditions may obscure reflector readings so automatic driving must be restricted, but broadcasting reflector conditions would become routine so drivers are alerted. To overcome the problem of vehicles in the safety lane obscuring reflectors, four identical reflectors at each station twelve feet apart should suffice. As a first suggestion, laser equipment on the car may be mounted near driver eye level on the post at the edge of the windshield; if all four reflectors are obscured then the car must be brought to a stop in the safety lane if the operator does not resume manual control within a very brief time interval. Of course, spacing of reflectors may be established so missing one reflector station will not compromise safe vehicle operation.

It seems to me the first step in reflector design is outlining what information is necessary for the vehicle to sucessfully follow its set-in route, taking into account the performance characteristics of the control devices. Then it is a matter of programming to determine the make-up of reflector markings, and then programming to enter data into the vehicle control devices.

Highway design seems a rudimentary matter; it's mostly a matter of commitment to consider operational requirements of the vehicles (turn radius, etc.), post reflectors, and add some form of bumps to warn drivers in the manual lane that he is encroaching on the automatic lane. Of course, policing of reflector conditions must become routine, especially when weather conditions are likely to cause splashing of crud onto reflectors. And, if laser equipment should be compromised, emergency response becomes necessary. on the car is compromised the driver must be prevented from entering the automatic lane.

Should you wish to offer an opinion or seek further comment, you may send me an e-mail by using as Subject - I read your essay on automatic driving - exactly as you see it here and click here for the e-mail form.

You may use your BACK button to return to your starting point.
To view Contents of this web site, click here.

My printer requires 3 pages or 2 sheet of paper to print this document.