Is America Ready for Fully Automated Highways?

Article excerpt

Science fiction writers' dreams of driverless cars carrying passengers on fully automated highways could become a reality before the turn of the century.

However, safety advocates, manufacturing companies and users of existing highway systems must first convince government officials that taxpayers will foot the enormous bill before such a system can be installed.

When it is, it will be only on a limited basis in highly congested areas where gridlock on urban highways is routine.

That's the assessment of two researchers for Hercules Inc. of Wilmington, Del., who were in town for the Compressed Natural Gas Vehicle competition sponsored by the University of Oklahoma.

"Technology is available and on the shelf to operate such a system right now," said Gary R. Lownsdale, director of transportation industry research for Hercules Advanced Materials & Systems Co., a subsidiary. "The only problem is that technology is a part of the aerospace industry and is expensive.

I don't know if taxpayers are willing to pay for such a system right now or

"What we (Hercules researchers and engineers) are doing is trying to adopt aerospace technology for the automotive industry. We point out ways in which this technology can be transferred and help the manufacturing companies adopt it.

"Something like determining when taxpayers will be willing to foot the bill is more in the bailiwick of the social scientists. Let them worry about that one." Lownsdale's vision is to take guidance systems of missiles and fly-by-wire computer-controlled airplanes and place them on cars. Relay switches would be placed inside the roadbed to guide the vehicle, releasing it at the proper exit.

Cars equipped with the automatic guidance device also would be equipped with collision avoidance devices, similar to those in use in commercial airliners, to prevent accidents. Drivers would be free to turn total control of the car to the computers and guidance systems and enjoy the ride.

"I would expect something like this to show up within the next five years on toll roads or in places where there is a lot of traffic congestion and accidents right now," he said. "It possibly would start with a single dedicated lane equipped with the guidance systems where motorists who have signed up, (much like the Pike Pass system on Oklahoma turnpikes) would just drive to the proper booth, the system would kick in and take control "The driver would punch into a computer console which exit to take, and the automatic system would do the rest.

"I don't have any idea of what it would cost, but I've estimated that installing one lane with this system would quadruple the cost of building an urban highway.

"So the question now becomes when will taxpayers be willing to pay for it? My feeling is not too much longer." Naturally any installation of such a system would be done in phases, Lownsdale said, with proximity warning devices installed in trucks. These devices are similar to those used in commercial airplanes which warn of another vehicle within proximity of a collision.

A big drawback to such a system is acceptance of the motoring public, Lownsdale said.

"I really don't think most drivers are ready for something like this now, as General Motors (Corp.) experienced when they tried video display terminals in their cars," he said. "People are just not ready for the electronic control panels and dashboards." Adapting the heads-up display, which projects instruments onto the windshield of a car, also has met with some consumer resistance, he said.

But that is expected to disappear as cost of these systems drops and people become more accustomed to computer usage.

Lownsdale and Joseph DeGiovanni, marketing manager for automotive testing services, accompanied the team from the University of West Virginia where they both serve as consultants for technology transfer projects. …