Driverless Cars, Safer Roads?

Computers make better drivers than humans.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Many people believe that driverless cars could transform the roads. If successful, they could enhance safety, conserve energy and better protect the environment. But humans first must accept the idea of automobiles that no longer need them behind the wheel.

“Here’s an image we like to throw out: you go to a restaurant in Manhattan, the car drops you off, and you tell it to go on its own and find a parking space, or go home and come back for you later,” said Ümit Ozguner, a professor at The Ohio State University as well as the department of electrical engineering at Ohio State University, who has spent the last 15 years working on this technology. “It’ll be like the old horse--you whistle, and it comes.” 

To be sure, such a scenario is a long way off, if it ever happens at all. Still, the notion of computer-driven vehicles, without people, is hardly science fiction. In recent years, automotive technology has advanced dramatically, bringing cars much closer to the day when they can operate autonomously. “Things thought of as futuristic 15 years ago are already in your cars, such as advanced cruise control that adjusts your speed, and GPS systems,” among other things, Ozguner said.

His is one of about a half-dozen groups in the United States researching this technology, in addition to others in Europe and Japan. Ozguner’s team is funded by nearly $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation over three years as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. His team has hired about eight new research scientists and has developed a high school level course about the technology. Furthermore, they are developing new hardware and software.

“From the technology standpoint, this research eventually will add jobs, as well as lead to new patents and industrial products,” he said.

Ozguner believes that, for the most part, computers make better drivers than humans. “They are better than we are, especially on highways,”   he said.  As for the unexpected--a sudden lane-changer, for example--computers can be programmed to respond. “If somebody wants to cut in front of you, with software, we can deal with that,” he said.

Researchers predict major gains in safety and fuel conservation if driverless cars catch on, particularly in the national transport of goods.   “The computer doesn’t get tired,” Ozguner said. “You wouldn’t have the possibility of a truck driver falling asleep at the wheel.”

Furthermore, a driverless convoy of trucks on the interstate could engage in “drafting,” a practice used often by cyclists, speed skaters, and car racers to reduce the overall effect of drag, which saves considerable energy when traveling fast. This would mean vehicles, trucks in this case, would be aligned in tight pack, following closely behind one another at high speeds.

“The first truck probably would have a driver, but the others behind it would not,” Ozguner said. “If you were going to do it, you would have to be following the truck in front of you at very high speed. If you were going to drive at 65 miles an hour very close to the truck in front of you, how long could you do it? Better to have something automated doing it for you.”

Highways are easy for driverless vehicles, because “there are long straight stretches of roadway where your car can do its thing,” he said.  The more difficult task will be to equip such cars to function safely and efficiently in city traffic, he said. 

“In urban driving, things become immensely more problematic,” he said. “You’re talking about stop-and-go, looking at traffic lights, responding to pedestrians jumping out in front of you, or other drivers running red lights. Again, the question becomes: is it safer for the car to do something for you? Or for you to do it? We have to take it to this next step.”

He and his colleagues believe that driverless cars will be introduced gradually, at first  within controlled settings. 

“You may see the convoys in trucks, the first truck will have a driver, but the second and third won’t, and you won’t even notice,”  Ozguner said. “Then you will see them in specialized situations, such as theme parks or college campuses, where you park your car outside, get on this bus and punch in your building number or the ride you want to go on, and it will take you there. Because it is in a structured environment, you’ll likely feel okay about that.”