One road, four wheels, no hands

Intelligent Transportation Systems aim to produce vehicles that drive t hemselves. But Tim Jackson wonders whether people will take a back seat to tech nology

The roads of Britain and other industrial countries may seem congested to bursting point; in fact, they are not. Because of the need to leave a safe stopping distance between moving cars, even the M25 at its busiest is more than half empty. If the gaps between cars could somehow be turned to use, road capacity could be doubled or tripled at a stroke - without building a single extra mile of road.

Until recently, such an idea has been no more than a pipe dream. But the technologies needed to allow cars to be driven in convoy, bumper-to-bumper, down the motorways at 70mph - ranging from video cameras to image recognition software, from satellite-based navigation to brute computing power - are advancing at a prodigious rate. What was formerly the stuff of science fiction is fast becoming commercial fact. At a conference in Paris last month, 2,500 specialists in Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), as the new area of research is known, met to compare notes.

According to a study carried out for ITS America, a not-for-profit organisation set up to link the efforts of US businesses, universities and the federal government, money is being pumped into intelligent highways in Europe, Japan and the US. The study says the Japanese government is spending most, dishing out some $1.9bn between 1985 and 1992, to complement the billions that Japanese firms have poured into satellite-driven systems which tell drivers in Tokyo, at a glance at a small TV screen, whether t o turn left or right.

But the other two continents are not far behind: the European Union, with its incurable appetite for alphabet soup, has an ambitious project called Prometheus, or Programme for a European Traffic System with the Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety. And the US progamme aims to deliver, within 10 years, a working prototype of an intelligent system in which a number of cars can be driven on public roads without human intervention.

A visit to Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where some of the most advanced research is being done, suggests this goal may be closer than expected. Ten years ago, the state of the art in autonomous navigation was a gadget called the Stanford Cart, which would move a few jerky inches and then take a 15-minute break to look around and plot its next step. With generous funding from the US Department of Defense, which would like to send driverless tanks into battle against the Iraqis and other malefactors, the CMU researchers have developed a full-sized vehicle, built on the platform of a military ambulance, which can find its way both on roads and off at normal driving speeds. Known as Navlab 2, the vehicle carries power generators, sensors, computers and - in case the software goes awry, and a human hand is needed on the steering wheel - graduate students.

In its early manifestations, the vehicle was the butt of jokes on the campus, with professors from other faculties claiming that it was responsible for running over scores of squirrels on the local golf course. The researchers responsible for it, Dean Pomerleau and Chuck Thorpe, deny this. Proof of their willingness to back their work can be seen in the fact that their latest self-driving vehicle is a smart new Honda Accord, Mr Pomerleau's own car. Thanks to the shrinking size of computers, it can be controlled by a powerful notebook computer on the back seat; and the camera on its windscreen is little more prominent than the extra mirror used to tow a caravan. The Honda has cruised around the Pennsylvania highways without incident. Testing it requiredno permission from the authorities, but attracted curious glances from traffic cops.

Perhaps surprisingly, given researchers' tendency to become over-enthusiastic about their creations, the scientists at CMU are realistic about the prospects of putting their work into practice. The next few years are to be spent working on the specifications of America's system, rather than actually designing and building it. "It'll be at least 2000 before we see cars steering themselves," says Mr Pomerleau.

One reason is that the US government will have to make difficult choices before it can hope to see cars driving themselves around the highways. The most important is whether the intelligence should be only inside the cars, or partly installed in the roadnetwork.

The arguments for confining work to cars are powerful. If magnets or beacons were to be used in the roads, the computational job of navigating a car might be simpler, but the system would be prohibitively expensive to install, since it would require roadworks to every mile of the country's road network. A system that depended on technology in the roads might also provide a useful source of material for sci-fi nightmares, unless it were designed so that a saboteur would need to do more than merely wave an electromagnet in order to lure cars off a mountain road on a foggy night. Most important, however, is the problem of redundancy: with technology advancing quickly, any road-based system would be doomed to obsolescence before it was complete - and countries that followed the US lead would find themselves in possession of cheaper and better road systems.

Car-based systems, however, have drawbacks, too. One obvious one is that even in mass production, it would cost several thousand pounds to equip a car with the navigational and computing gadgets needed, although the cost would be greatly reduced in time.A more subtle problem is that making decisions entirely on the basis of what a car's sensors tell it about the outside world is greatly more difficult, and will prove a prodigious challenge to researchers for years to come.

The programme is certain to yield benefits on the way. The work already done makes it possible to imagine collision-avoidance systems that could detect when a car is drifting towards the central barrier of a highway or getting too close to a car in front, and either warn the driver to change course or take control to avert an accident. Such systems, though, will gain public acceptance only when they are significantly more reliable than people - for accidents caused by faults in the software would generate acres of hostile publicity even though we shrug our shoulders at motorway pile-ups caused by human error.

When the system becomes a reality, it is certain to raise questions of public policy. Since people would be able to do something useful in their cars as they commuted, ITS would change patterns of land use and work as much as the building of highways in the US did in the first place. But it also raises a more frivolous question: will people want to give up driving, and spend their time reading in the back seat? For many people, cars are more than just a cheap, safe way of getting from A to B; a car is astatus symbol, emotional punchbag and game of skill all rolled into one.

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    English Teacher- Manchester

    £19200 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes