Researchers will soon begin testing automated cars on Virginia Roadways. But the advent of truly driverless cars is still pretty far down the road.
On the outside this looks like any normal Cadillac SRX a sleek, a 2013 luxury SUV. But it’s been retrofitted with screens and sensors. A small antenna on top with a GPS and Wi-Fi receiver detecting obstacles ahead, in this case, a tester wearing what looks like a construction worker’s vest containing a transmitter.
“So if I’m normally driving by and a construction worker steps out in front of us, we get a warning,” says Andy Petersen, Director for Technology Development at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg. “It was a close call, but this technology might have just saved a construction worker getting hit.”
Or a cyclist, a motorcycle driver, another car or a telephone poll.
“The whole idea behind this newer technology is to try and kill less people on the roads. Roads are dangerous and how do you make them less dangerous? This is one of the ideas for making roads safer.”
Petersen says his team is not looking so much at the cars, that’s the concern of the companies which will manufacture them. The focus at VTTI he says, is the humans inside and how they respond to the information the car gives them about what’s going on on the road ahead.
“You can see a couple of big screens in the back. We’ve got a computer that runs all this stuff, collecting six video streams and acceleration and radar data, so that’s our research tool that we collect data on human responses.”
This will give technology developers important information about how to design these so-called self driving vehicles, but the term is not quite accurate, at least not yet.
“Until we have – and even then – fully automated vehicles, what people usually usually call autonomous or self driving vehicles, which is basically the highest level of automation, there’s still going to be a human interaction,” says Myra Blanco, Director for the Center of Automated Vehicle Systems at Viriginia Tech’ s Transportation Institute.
“It’s the natural progression in the technology. Think of it, you have cruise control you set up a speed, 55 miles per hour, but you need to be looking ahead because there might be a person cutting in front of you and that person suddenly steps on the break and you can't be going 55 anymore. With advanced cruise control, the vehicle goes one step ahead and says,'I know that person is reducing speed so I’m going to be reducing my speed,'" she explains.
Blanco says VTTI is responding to market demand to bring more ‘auto’ to the automobile.
“Priorities change, so going from point a to point b is a need but it’s not what people want to do. People want to be connected, be able to either have a conference call or call grandma and see how’s she doing for the day. So the user is saying, 'this thing of driving, I would love if you can take over that for me, I have other things that I would like to be able to do.'”
Meantime, testing of the semi-automated cars will take place on the smart road at VTTI in Montgomery County and the Virginia International Raceway in Halifax.
When testing is complete, the cars will begin showing up on some seventy miles of state roadways for real world testing.