Futurama Realized

Article December 28, 2000
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In early August, this editor had the opportunity to represent
ROADS & BRIDGES at a demonstration of automated highway system
(AHS) technologies in San Diego. More than 3,500 individuals
attended the four-day event, which uncharacteristically included
100-deg temperatures, and even a bit of gloom and a dash of rain
at other times.

The congressionally mandated demonstration
featured "hands free" vehicle automation on a section of I-15.
Other "scenarios" showcased were adaptive cruise control,
collision warning, obstacle avoidance, lane departure warning,
and lateral and longitudinal control.

Hosted by the National
Automated Highway Consortium (NAHSC), Troy, Mich., the event was
truly interactive, offering attendees the opportunity to
experience first-hand the sensation of riding in a vehicle that
drives itself; speeds up, slows down, and changes lanes
automatically.

In the years since 1939, when the automated
highway concept was presented to the public in General Motors'
"Futurama" exhibit at the New York World's Fair, technology has
advanced dramatically in most fields and is now making inroads
into our highway system as states and cities make greater use of
Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Automobiles have
become progressively more electronic and automated in the past
20 years, with everything seemingly being controlled by a
computer chip.

Safety, in addition to reduced traffic
congestion and improved fuel efficiency, was trumpeted as a
major benefit of AHS. "We've done a good job building better
roads," said Chuck Thorpe of Carnegie Mellon University. "But we
haven't done so good of a job building better people." Thorpe's
first experience with vehicle safety improvements came after his
father, who was an emergency room doctor in the early 1960s,
treated a woman who had been thrown through the windshield of a
car. The next day his dad went out and bought seat belts.

The demo vehicles were guided in several ways. Most used a
combination of sensing devices combined with video technology.
Magnets were inserted into the roadway to guide some vehicles
while others used special traffic marking tape as a reference.

Magnets were available as souvenirs for media types. However,
warnings were issued to keep them away from any electronic
equipment; too late I was told for one cellular phone user.

On whole the demonstration was educational and a heck of a lot
of fun. However, there were glitches. While the vehicles I rode
in operated flawlessly, one high-tech device, the air
conditioner in a trailer, which was packed with media for a
press conference, failed miserably in the 100 deg heat.

The
next goal of the consortium--aside from equipping its trailers
with larger air conditioners-- is to determine which of the
components demonstrated will be used to build a prototype AHS.

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