Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | May 12, 2010

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Becky FengerDriverless cars

Nothing is more blatant than the front page articles appearing every fortnight in Arizona's newspaper of record, specifically designed to convince Valley residents that we need an ever expanding network of mass transit to cure everything from congestion to bunions. Along with this constant drumbeat is the suggestion that taxes will need to be raised to acquire the likes of expensive commuter or high speed rail.

Transportation and land use expert and author Randal O'Toole came to Phoenix to discuss his new book "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What To Do About It." If only every city planner twitching to get moving could have seen his eye-opening presentation, we might be on our way to some really innovative solutions.

"We are on the verge of a new transportation revolution. Basically, it's driverless cars," O'Toole announced. He is speaking of totally automated cars that can take you from and to wherever you want to go.

There was a successful demonstration of driverless cars in 1997 on a new freeway in California. This demonstration of the project, partly funded by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, was attended by the then-Deputy Secretary of Transportation. He looked at it, and said: "This is great; I'm cancelling the project." The reason he gave was that he didn't think people would want to let a computer drive their cars for them.

Driverless cars have huge benefits, O'Toole tells us. They will at least triple highway capacity from about 2,000 vehicles an hour down one freeway lane to 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles an hour. They'll provide universal mobility. Anybody will be able to use a driverless car, even the handicapped or sight-impaired. You just have to be able to get into the car and tell it where you want to go.

The cars will be able to drive faster safely, and there will be a lot less congestion.

Since the Dept. of Transportation yanked funding for it, the only government funding for driverless cars in this country has come from the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which wanted to have driverless cars for war zones like their pilotless airplanes. So ARPA offered a $2 million prize to anybody who could build a driverless car that could go through a desert course in the least amount of time. The winner was a car designed by Stanford University. It was called "Stanley" and co-sponsored by Volkswagen.

Two years later in 2007 ARPA had another $2 million prize for anyone who could design a car that could parallel park itself in an urban area. That year, the prize was won by Carnegie Mellon, co-sponsored by General Motors.

At that time, the VP of General Motors predicted that by 2018 anybody will be able to buy a driverless car, but the main obstacles would be institutional and bureaucratic, not technological. O'Toole believes we can have driverless cars sooner if we can overcome those non-technological problems.

Today, VW has a "valet" car. You drive up to a restaurant, get out of your car and say: "Car, go find a parking place." The car, using tiny sensors, searches around until it sees a vacant parking space and parks itself. When you come out of the restaurant with your iPhone and say, "Car, come," your car will pick you up. VW says that with enhanced GPS technology it can locate a car to within 2 cm. of anywhere it wants to go. Then with these sensors it can detect pedestrians and other obstacles and make sure it can safely drive in the street.

Volkswagen is so confident about its driverless car technology that it has a driverless Audi it will run up Pike's Peak Highway this summer. That highway has dozens of turns, including a number of hairpins. Moreover, it will be done at racing speeds, which means faster than 60 mph on the average up this road. Stay tuned.

One can already buy a car today that is well on its way to being driverless. Honda, Toyota, VW and many other car companies have such cars. First, they have what is called "adaptive cruise control." The car senses cars in front of you, and it maintains a fixed distance behind those cars. Second, cars are what is called "lane keyed." The car detects the stripes in the road, and then it steers between the stripes without your hands on the wheel. Some cars also have little sensors for collision avoidance.

Beam me up!