Traffic No More says “Car of the Future”

Posted on November 16, 2009

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Automakers have since 1939 been promising us autonomous cars that would take driving out of our hands and make traffic accidents a thing of the past. Seventy years later, we’re still waiting.

General Motors first offered this tantalizing glimpse of the future at the 1939 World’s Fair, where its Futurama exhibit boldly predicted we’d be zipping along at 100 mph under automatic control by 1960. No longer would cars be subject to the control of humans; our roads would become the carefree domain of machines smarter than the people in them.

“These cars of 1960 and the highways on which they drive will have in them devices which will correct the faults of human beings as drivers,” Futurama creator Norman Bel Geddes explained in his book, Magic Motorways. “They will prevent the driver from committing errors. They will prevent his turning out into traffic except when he should. ”

Bel Geddes’ vision was so compelling President Roosevelt invited him to the White House to discuss the possibility of an automated highway system. The idea has tremendous appeal when you consider the economic cost of traffic accidents and the 41,000 lives lost each year.

Five years ago, the World Health Organization issued a report that found auto accidents cost the United States $230 billion (.pdf). Of that, $31.7 billion was spent on health care. That cost will only grow, because the WHO expects auto accidents to be the No. 3 killer worldwide by 2020.

Safety regulators are beginning to realize that safety technology designed to minimize injuries, like the ever increasing number of airbags, isn’t paying the dividends it once did. When several tons of vehicle smash together there is only so much energy than can be absorbed, but collision avoidance technologies like electronic stability control are proving to save more lives than any technology since the seatbelt. That’s why automakers like Mercedes-Benz are developing “crash-proof” cars and big players like GM, Volvo and Volkswagen say autonomous cars are just over the horizon. Events like the DARPA Grand Challenge have shown the technology is close but needs refinement.

GM tested an autonomous vehicle system in the 1950s. Photo: General Motors

The Japanese are out in front on this, with the New Energy Development Organization announcing plans to begin testing autonomous highway technology sometime next year. And researchers in the European Union are developing similar technology called “road trains.” But the idea is far from new.

In the 1950’s General Motors and RCA teamed up to develop automated highway technology (.pdf) that used a buried wire and magnetic pickup coils on the car. The buried line communicated the speed limit to the vehicle and warned of obstacles ahead. Engineers demonstrated the technology in 1958, using a 1958 Chevrolet Impala and, later, the streamlined turbine powered Firebird III concept car pictured at left.

Even Disney got in on the act with the animated short Magic Highway USA. But GM and RCA couldn’t convince the feds to spend the additional $100,000 per mile that automated highway technology would added to the cost of the national highway system.

Fifty years later, we’re seeing autonomous driving technologies appear in mainstream cars. Models like the Toyota Prius, Ford Taurus and the European-spec Volkswagen Golf offer features like auto-parking, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control. The Volvo XC60 comes with a standard auto-braking feature called City Safety that stops the car when collision with an obstacle is imminent.

New car window stickers will soon have check boxes for crash avoidance technologies, like forward collision warning and lane departure warning, alongside crash ratings for front and side impacts. Volvo was surprised to find that European insurance companies offered a 30 percent discount on premiums for the XC60, which British regulators called “the car we couldn’t crash.”

Some argue American automakers would hesitate to offer technologies that assume control of the vehicle for fear of being sued if something goes wrong. But General Motors was sued a few years ago for not making such technology — specifically, electronic stability control — standard equipment. As crash avoidance technology becomes more common, you can bet things like lane departure warning will become mandatory.

Fully autonomous cars remain somewhere in the future. Cars like Tartan Racing Chevrolet Tahoe that GM developed with Carnegie Mellon University offer convincing proof of concept. But previous attempts to commercialize automatic vehicle control have failed because they required dedicated infrastructure and vehicles that must remain entirely under automatic control. New technologies, like CMOS radar-on-a-chip and all-weather LIDAR, will lead to more intelligent, more reliable vehicles. These next-generation autonomous cars will bring man and machine together harmoniously, letting you do the driving but taking over if you got into trouble.

Eventually machines will be programmed to drive like we do, letting us sit back, enjoy the ride and realize the future Norman Bel Geddes envisioned 70 years ago.

(via wired.com)

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