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
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
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
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. …