Are you ready to sit back and let your car do the driving?

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You may have been following the buzz in the past couple of years regarding the possibility of self-driving cars as the next wave of technology to hit the roads. With major corporations such as Delphi Automotive PLC and Google introducing this technology, these manufacturers are inching their way toward redefining the role of a driver. California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., have authorized putting these vehicles to the test on tracks, city streets, and congested highways. Iowa is also highly interested in being involved with the testing and development of autonomous vehicles. With this comes the opportunity to become a leader in technology, making roadways smarter, safer, and simplified for drivers.  

How much would the roads need to change to accommodate a driverless vehicle? Not much according to Dr, Dan McGehee, director of the Transportation and Vehicle Research Program at the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center. Good paint lines would be the roadway key to making autonomous vehicles run smoothly.

McGehee says sensors in the vehicles use the paint lines on roadways to locate where the car is in relation to the lane. Sensors also detect surrounding vehicles, pedestrians who may be crossing the road, parked vehicles, bikes, and traffic barriers.

So what happens when the paint lines are covered with snow? That’s just one of many hurdles to overcome before the vehicles are ready for us to drive – or rather, until we are ready to be driven by our cars.

This is a video of a research project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Researchers at the University of Iowa recently began testing a similar vehicle.

The five levels of autonomy

Autonomous vehicles, also called self-driving, driverless, or robotic vehicles, have five different levels of autonomy as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

  • In a Level 0 vehicle, the driver completely controls the vehicle all the time.
  • Level 1 automation involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone. The driver still must constantly monitor the road and be available for control.
  • For Level 2 automation, two or more functions are automated to work together.  An example would be adaptive cruise control combined with lane centering. For Level 2, the driver must monitor the road and be available for control.
  • Self-driving automation is the mark of Level 3, where drivers are not expected to constantly monitor the roadway. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.
  • The most fully automated is Level 4. This is full self-driving automation where the vehicle can perform all driving functions. This would be ideal for those who are unable to drive. This level would also include vehicles without human drivers.    

Manufacturers of Level 4 vehicles are hoping to get them on the roads for the public within the next 10 to 20 years. Self-driving cars have the ability to increase safety, reduce traffic congestion and emissions, increase fuel savings, and provide a very convenient way of travel.

Steve Gent, director of Traffic and Safety at the Iowa Department of Transportation emphasizes the impact these cars could have on society: “Car makers are literally racing to include more and more autonomous features into today’s new cars. Safety features such as adaptive cruise controls, forward collision warning, and active braking systems may save the life of a family member. The car makers know that many people will buy a new car with these features because price is not a factor when it comes to the safety of their family.”

This is the first in a series of blog posts on autonomous vehicles. Look for posts about self-driving semis and construction vehicles in the days to come.

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