So This Is Autopia

The writer barrels down an automated highway on a car that drives itself

It seems like forever that I've been reading about the imminent debut of smart cars and automated highways. They were a big hit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, I'm told, at General Motors' Futurama pavilion. I even drove a prototype Cadillac with radar braking some 25 years ago. So when a couple of opportunities came up recently to try out cars that steer, accelerate, and brake by themselves, this skeptic took the bait.

The idea behind automated highways is that by taking control of the vehicle out of the hands of the driver, the capacity of existing roads could be doubled or tripled. That's because most of today's congestion is caused by crashes, and 90% of all car accidents are caused by human error.

UNDER CONTROL. The most likely scenario for the automated highway is that you drive your car to specially instrumented lanes of a highway and "check in," much like entering a toll road. Then, the system takes control of the car until you exit, when it steers it to a transition area where you can resume manual driving.

After experimenting with two test systems, my skepticism quickly faded. I was impressed to find that much of the technology exists today and, in fact, some of it is already in today's cars. I think we will ultimately have commercially available smart cars and automated highways. But I expect they'll face limited use over the next 30 years.

For the first test, I went to I-15 in San Diego, where the National Automated Highway System Consortium will run a Congress-mandated demonstration of smart-car technology in early August. The consortium has embedded magnets every four feet along the center of two reversible car-pool lanes that run for nearly eight miles. And it has decked out a fleet of 10 Buick LeSabres with magnetometers under the bumper to sense the magnets and automatically keep the cars in the center of the lane. The magnets have another role as well: Because they can be set with alternating polarities, they can send a series of ones and zeroes to the car, a binary code that can signal exits or the radius of an approaching curve.

Each car also has a radar sensor mounted on the front to assess the distance to the vehicle ahead. There's lots of other gear, too: Motors have to be added to steer and brake, for example, and there are two Pentium 166 computers in the trunk to control everything.

It's a pretty eerie feeling to be barreling down the highway at 65 mph in a convoy. Especially when no one's driving. We were running in a "platoon" of three cars spaced about 20 feet apart. Twelve feet is typical, and better for fuel economy--a savings of about 30%--because the closer spacing cuts down on wind resistance. They can run cars six feet apart, but that's too nerve-racking for the passengers, said an engineer who rode in our car.

On our first run, we had a lucky break. Our radar failed, so we got to see how the system handles breakdowns. The cars talk to one another digitally through a radio link and, in this case, the lead car took control of ours and increased the spacing between us and the other vehicles. With a major catastrophe, such as a blowout, the system would instantaneously hit the brakes on all of the following cars so the worst that could be expected is a series of fender benders.

I got to see even more pieces of the system at a second preview, this one at Honda Motor's proving ground, a 7.5-mile oval in the Mojave Desert. The carmaker has outfitted two Accords for hands-free platooning, but with a difference--it doesn't need the instrumented roadway. The cars have a camera trained on the road ahead, and the computer keeps the car in the center of the lane by watching the white lines between the lanes. One car I drove had what's called adaptive cruise control. Instead of keeping the car at a constant speed, it uses a forward-looking radar to adapt the speed to traffic conditions.

CRUISING. I got on the track, and Honda sent out two other drivers just to make it interesting. I got up to 85 mph and set the cruise control. As I approached a slower-moving car in front of me, my car slowed down and locked onto its speed. When I changed lanes, the car accelerated back up to 85 mph, passing the other driver. Mitsubishi Motors already offers this as an option in the Japanese market.

Although pieces of the technology are starting to show up as options, the consortium estimates that it's 10 years from tests of completely automated highways with the general public and 20 years away from widespread use. I'm still not convinced that I'll ever be able to set a car on autopilot and take a nap or watch television on my commute. But the technology is creating "co-pilots" that now help to make driving easier.

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