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A Matter of Time

Automated driving could be just years away

By James M. Amend

Page 16

Once considered the stuff of fantasy, automobiles that drive themselves are fast becoming a reality and Michigan stands to play a major role in putting so-called autonomous vehicles on the world’s roadways as early as the next decade.

“We are much closer than most people think,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) in Ann Arbor. “Much of the technology already exists. It is a matter of pulling it all together.”

Also known as automated driving – where someday soon drivers could take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road to let the vehicle do the work – the concept is seen by many in the federal government and the automobile industry as the best avenue to reduce traffic fatalities, congestion and fuel consumption.

Self-driving technology, however, must walk before it can run, and the first step is the development of connected vehicles capable of communicating with each other and elements of the transportation infrastructure such as traffic lights, railroad crossings and the various speed zones.

Here’s how it works: Connected vehicle systems use Dedicated Short Range Nissan’s Leaf prototype is the first autonomous vehicle to hit the roadways and to complete a test drive in Japan. Communications (DSRC) technology, which transmits information quickly, securely and reliably, similar to a wireless Internet connection. DSRC uses devices already installed on many vehicles on the road today, or could use an aftermarket transmitter so cars, trucks and buses can talk to each other and the infrastructure.

On the safety front, connected vehicles could alert a driver to merging traffic, a collision ahead on the roadway, an upcoming school zone or an imminent crash. Analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation shows connected vehicle technology could help in 80 percent of the nation’s non-impaired crash scenarios.

Connected vehicles also could improve mobility by analyzing traffic conditions and allowing a driver to plan the least congested route, eliminating bottlenecks and unnecessary stops.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic jams in urban areas add 56 billion pounds of tailpipe emissions to the atmosphere. Americans sitting in traffic last year wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, or enough to fill the Mercedes- Benz Superdome (formerly Louisiana Superdome) four times.

“Vehicle-to-vehicle communication has the potential to be the ultimate gamechanger,” said David Strickland, chief administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The exact year when fully autonomous vehicles might arrive remains a question. Some experts see it as soon as 2020. Others, meanwhile, do not see it in the foreseeable future.

But everyone agrees that the technology will eventually drive our cars and trucks, and will have a significant impact on safety, the environment and consumer pocketbooks. “All of those issues need to be improved by an order of magnitude,” U-M’s Sweatman said. “And we believe automated driving will offer the best opportunity to achieve that.”

James M. Amend is associate editor at