By Bill Holloway
The California state senate recently voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 1298, which would establish safety and performance standards for self-driving, or “autonomous,” vehicles. The bill now goes on to the state assembly. Florida and Nevada have already enacted similar legislation, and several other states are currently working on the issue.
While totally autonomous vehicles are still some years away from widespread acceptance, other types of intelligent vehicles may be closer to large-scale adoption.
Beginning this August, Ann Arbor, Michigan, will host the world’s largest test yet of connected vehicle technology. 2,800 vehicles will be equipped with a system that includes GPS and a powerful wireless broadcasting system to warn drivers about upcoming road hazards. While currently available proximity sensors can warn drivers about a vehicle in their blind spot or notify them if the car ahead of them is stopping abruptly, these systems generally require a direct line of sight. The system being tested in Ann Arbor is able to provide warnings to drivers much sooner than existing proximity sensors. For example, the system can notify drivers about oncoming traffic around a blind corner or sudden braking by a car several vehicles ahead. In addition to the direct safety benefits, the technology could also give commuters and governments real-time traffic information. A number of foreign and domestic automakers are partnering with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop connected vehicle technology standards to ensure system interoperability between manufacturers. The government will be weighing whether to require that manufacturers include the technology in new cars based on the results of the Ann Arbor experiment.
Bridging the gap between the connected vehicles of the Ann Arbor experiment and truly driverless cars, the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project conducted its first on-road test of a “road-train,” a convoy of autonomously driven vehicles following a human-driven lead vehicle. Using cameras, radar, and laser sensors along with wireless communications, the trailing vehicles monitor the lead vehicle and other nearby vehicles and mimic the actions of the lead vehicle. Would-be drivers in the trailing vehicles are free to work, read, or relax while the work of driving is handled by the lead vehicle, disengaging from the road-train and assuming control of their vehicle when they near their destination. By reducing human errors and decreasing the distance between vehicles, the road-train concept could increase roadway capacity and fuel economy. However, as described in Atlantic Cities, while the road-train concept may improve safety and efficiency on highways, it does not ameliorate the most pressing problems associated with single occupant vehicles in urban areas – street congestion, driver stress, and the cost and availability of parking. In addition, it is unclear who would pay professional road-train drivers.
Whatever shape intelligent/connected vehicles take in the coming years, there is little doubt that the future will bring increased communication between vehicles and that automated or assisted driving will become much more commonplace.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.