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Leave the Driving to the Computer : Student's Winning Project Makes the Machine Fight the Traffic


Many people only fantasize about schemes to drive faster when they are stuck in freeway traffic. Kevin Chang decided to do something about it.

Chang, 18, a graduating senior at Van Nuys Math and Science Magnet High School, developed a computer program to improve traffic flow by automatically controlling acceleration and braking. His Automated Navigational Traffic program won the grand prize Tuesday in the Rockwell International/Los Angeles Unified School District Computer Science Competition.

"I've been stuck in too many traffic jams," said Chang, who collected a $2,000 check with the top prize. "I would love to solve L.A.'s traffic problems, and I'd love to have someone else--the computer--drive my car for me."

In his program, a infrared sensor mounted on the front of each car monitors the distance to nearby cars and other objects. The computer automatically adjusts the accelerator and brakes to control the car. If every car had such a computer, traffic would flow faster and more smoothly, Chang said.

"Since computers can react faster than human beings, cars can drive faster and you can fit more of them on the freeway," He said. "You can tailgate closer safely."

Chang, who plans to attend UC Berkeley in the fall, demonstrated his guidance system on a model car but hopes to eventually try it with a real car.

He has already begun developing a program to steer the car by using video cameras and sonar devices.

Chang, who spent more than $1,000 and many weekends over the last year developing the program, said he "just didn't have the resources or the time" to set up the video and sonar steering equipment.

One traffic engineer working on a similar project for the state wants to see Chang's work. Bobby Rao, a researcher at the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, is developing a prototype Intelligent Vehicle Highway System in a program called California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways.

"I'm not sure how useful his program would be because I haven't seen it," Rao said. "But he's thinking along the right lines. His research sounds very interesting. He should get in contact with us when he gets to Cal."

The computer science competition was established in 1978 to reward outstanding efforts and to increase interest in the field among students at junior highs and high schools.

The 15 student finalists demonstrated their projects Tuesday at the Biltmore Hotel before a banquet to announce the prize winners. In addition to Chang, four students won first prizes of $1,000 each and 10 students won second prizes of $500 each.

Two brothers from Northridge, Hong and Eugene Kim, won second prize for ACCUTYPE, a typing tutorial that tries to make learning to type fun by providing a clever video game to hone the user's skills.

In their program, a small frog jumps across the screen toward a giant toad. The only way the giant toad can be stopped from eating the frog is to type a word flashing on the screen correctly. As the game progresses, the student has to type faster and faster.

In the tutorial, part of a computer-scanned photograph of George Bush emits the words "read my lips" before explaining the keyboard in the first lesson. Other lessons feature cartoon character narrators such as Ultraman or the Japanese comic book character Sushi.

The computer lessons can also be profitable because many have commercial applications. Eugene Kim, an 18-year-old senior, said he is making about $2,000 a month from an advanced version of Quatris, an engineering program that won the top prize two years ago.

Byung Lee, a 16-year-old sophomore at Granada Hills High School, created Mathmaster, a game designed to entertain and teach mathematics to students from first grade through high school.

The game features a UFO that is bombing the Earth. In order to stop a bomb before it lands, a player has to correctly answer a math problem as it flashes on the screen.

"If you get three wrong, the Earth is destroyed," Lee said. "It can be addictive. . . . If you like using your brain, you can do this forever."

While other students want to create practical, fun games, Juan Serrano, a ponytailed graduating senior at Belmont High School, "wanted to create art."

His program, Fractal Image Design System 2, allows users to develop graphic representations of mathematical equations using a sophisticated full-color display.

"You use mathematics to generate art," said Serrano, 17. "It shows that math doesn't have to be boring."

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