VACETS Regular Technical Column

"Everyday Engineering"

"Everyday Engineering" was a technical column posted regularly on the VACETS forum. The author of the following articles is Dr. Hoang Viet-Dung. For more publications produced by other VACETS  members, please visit the VACETS Member Publications page or Technical Columns page.

The VACETS Technical Column is contributed by various members , especially those of the VACETS Technical Affairs Committe. Articles are posted regulary on [email protected] forum. Please send questions, comments and suggestions to [email protected]

Tue, 22 Nov 94

Automated Highway System

It took me many years to buy a car with a cruise control option, I just could not see the benefit. Now, I can't live without it. Zipping down the Interstate 95, I couldn't understand why it took me so long to decide on getting such an useful option. For goodness sake, the car practically drove by itself.

Well, my friends, be prepared, because you ain't see nothing yet. Mandated by Congress through the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, the Automated Highway System (AHS) technologies are required to be demonstrated by the end of 1997. Described briefly as the component Advanced Vehicle Control Systems of the Intelligent Vehicle Highway System (IVHS) in an article published in this column a few weeks ago, AHS technologies will allow cars to travel literally bumper-to-bumper at highway speeds without the need for driver control. While the Automated Vehicle Location and Navigation's goal, another IVHS component, is to build "smart cars" (see the article "Do you know your way to San Jose?"), the AHS's is to produce "smart highways".

AHS lanes will have sensors, computers, and communications devices to automatically control the vehicles. Adaptive cruise control slows a car down when it gets too close to the car in front of it, and sensors on the road keep the car in its lane. GPS will be an integral part of the system's navigation and control features. AHS lanes will be integrated with normal highways where vehicles are controlled by drivers. AHS promises to transform collections of passive thoroughfares into smart, responsive systems adept to control commuter patterns, to respond swiftly to medical emergencies, to manage interstate commercial trucking, to make public transportation more efficient, and to help motorists drive better.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently selected the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC) to develop a prototype for a future AHS. The FHWA awarded the consortium 80 percent of an estimated $200 million AHS development costs. The consortium must come up with the other 20%. Lead by Delco Electronics Corporation, NAHSC members include General Motors Corporation, Bechtel Corporation, Hughes Aircraft Corporation, Martin Marietta, the California Transportation Department, and others.

With such heavy hitters in the line-up, AHS will be here soon enough. But there are many challenges ahead. Building an infrastructure will be a huge undertaking and probably will take decades and billions of dollars to implement. Then, there are lots of social and legal issues to overcome: antitrust, patent, liability, right to privacy, and regulatory and jurisdictional constraints.

Just a few years ago, we can only dream. But it probably will not be long before none of us will need to learn how to drive: door-to-door driverless car service is destined to be part of our lives. Needless to say, this old engineer will try not to be the last one to get that option this time around.

Viet-Dung Hoang, Ph.D.
[email protected]

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