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Driverless Cars Move Closer to Reality

Autonomous minivan
Two autonomous vehicles, including this minivan, were piloted 8,000 mi from Italy to China in 2010. The project’s director says the cars sometimes had to be driven through crowded cities, and that engineers are still researching how to enable the driverless cars to adapt to local traffic patterns. Courtesy of

As researchers and car manufacturers are moving toward more automated vehicles—including some without drivers—the roadway infrastructure in the United States is failing to keep pace.

October 16, 2012—In the imaginings of Alberto Broggi, PhD., a professor of computer engineering at the University of Parma in Italy, cars automatically slow for intersections or bypass them altogether over a labyrinth of ramps and bridges while their drivers take a nap, never worrying about a traffic accident.

That vision and the possibility of driverless cars drew little closer to reality last month, when California enacted legislation allowing automated vehicles on roads for testing purposes, and directing its department of motor vehicles to establish rules for automated vehicles by 2015.

Also in September, a professional association dedicated to advancing technology, IEEE, of New York City, named driverless cars the most promising form of intelligent transportation and predicted that by 2040, 75 percent of all cars on the road would be driverless.

The prediction was based on the belief that existing roads can be modified to accommodate driverless cars by adding an array of sensors and telecommunications equipment so cars can communicate with their surroundings, other vehicles, and eventually even a communications center that would manage traffic flow in a fashion similar to the air traffic control system.

“All of the vehicles would be broadcasting their position, their trajectory, so everybody will know how the vehicle will behave,” says Broggi, a senior member of IEEE. “You have to surround the current infrastructure with new technology, like cameras and sensors, so you could be able to very, very efficiently use the infrastructure that you have.”

 Interior of sedan, displaying computer

Computers operate the sedan at the Artificial Vision and Intelligent
Systems Laboratory (VisLab) at the University of Parma in Italy.
VisLab works with car manufacturers that are researching
intelligent transportation systems ranging from automatic detection
of lanes, vehicles and pedestrians to fully automatic driving.
Courtesy of

The projected benefits of automated vehicles include reducing traffic congestion, improving fuel efficiency, and eliminating traffic accidents. But to capture those benefits completely, Broggi says, all cars on the road must be driverless—that is, the drivers do not control the vehicles. Until that happens, drivers will face situations like the one Broggi encountered in 2010, when, as part of a crew piloting two driverless cars 8,000 mi through Europe and Asia, he and colleagues had to take the wheel while driving through Moscow, fearing that staying within lane markings would cause an accident. 

Still, perhaps in as few as 50 years into the future, Broggi says, roads full of autonomous vehicles would be more efficient and completely safe, even as traffic signals become obsolete. As cars enter urban areas they would check in with a central communication system, which would plot the best route through a city, avoiding traffic, construction, or poor road conditions. Eventually, Broggi says, these localized communication centers could connect with one another to create an elaborate network of roads traveled solely by autonomous vehicles.

While that futuristic vision of roads filled with driverless cars may be decades away, the day when driverless cars travel in designated lanes or on special highways is much closer, Broggi says—perhaps within just 20 years. Both changes would likely involve the use of existing roads blanketed with new technology, he says.

Panos Prevedouros, Ph.D., M.ASCE, a professor of transportation engineering in the civil engineering department of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says that while car manufacturers have been advancing driverless car technology for years, governments have lagged behind on the road improvements that are required to accommodate the emerging technology.

While intelligent traffic signals that adjust for traffic flow already exist, the sensors that detect the traffic often malfunction because municipalities can’t afford the maintenance package. And even though such car manufacturers as Buick and Volvo have successfully experimented with running driverless cars close behind each other at high speeds, Prevedouros says the risk of a multicar pileup makes legalizing the high-speed, fuel-efficient “car trains” risky.

Autonomous minivan testing video systems and lasers during its journey

The journey across Europe and Asia enabled engineers to test
video systems and lasers in a variety of situations while traveling
through Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. Drivers were in the
vehicles throughout the trip so they could take over when
necessary and be sure the test drive was not dangerous for
pedestrians or other drivers. Courtesy of

“Most of these ideas still have huge legal hurdles to overcome,” he says, adding that it is unlikely that the use of driverless cars will be extended to anyone other than the disabled or elderly in the next decade.

But jurisdictions other than California are moving to bring about change. The Washington, D.C., city council is considering legislation, proposed in September, to authorize autonomous vehicles on city roads and require the district’s department of motor vehicles to create safety rules for driverless cars. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation is working with states on what is called the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration program, studying the feasibility of roadway communications systems that would improve safety.

In the meantime, several other automated, life-saving automotive technologies that were considered theoretical as recently as the 1990s will likely be widely affordable in the near future. Cars that won’t be able to make erratic lane changes or have front-end collisions, or that could warn any oncoming cars with similar technology of an icy patch in the road, are not too far off, Prevedouros says.

The technology “exists, but is not interconnected or applied to a very large number of cars,” Prevedouros explains, adding that in some cases the technology still requires further testing or pricing studies.

And even more advanced car technologies are coming, too, such as a BMW that can sense when its driver is suffering a medical emergency, and quickly slow itself from a high speed, change lanes, and park on the side of the road before calling for help, Prevedouros says. “Cars are very smart,” he adds. “And roads are still quite dumb.” 



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