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Project Begins to Test 'Driver-less' Freeway System

June 28, 1996|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A short stretch of freeway here becomes home today to a bold new experiment based on the oldest of motorist laments: driving would be so much better if not for the drivers.

Politicians and transportation visionaries from around the nation will gather on Interstate 15 to inaugurate a futuristic venture in highway management--a computerized system using magnets in the road that could someday guide packs of speeding cars, with virtually no help from the drivers.

The 7.6-mile stretch of road about 10 miles north of downtown San Diego was picked as the site of the first test of such an automated system because of its recent vintage and unique traffic pattern. The reversible carpool lane flows in one direction for the morning rush hour, the opposite direction at night and is closed to all cars in midday--allowing construction of the experimental system without interfering with normal traffic.

The first of thousands of three-inch magnetic spikes are to be buried in the lane during the groundbreaking today. The magnets eventually would help keep in line "platoons" of cars--about a dozen at a time--at close distances and high speeds that only the most foolhardy tailgater would attempt now.

The effort by a consortium of government agencies, car makers and universities, including UC Berkeley, is part of a push to meet a 1991 congressional mandate to develop a prototype automated highway by 2002. A test drive on the San Diego experiment could come as early as next summer.

Funded mostly by the federal government, the budget for the entire automated highway program through 2002 is $200 million. The demonstration phase, including the I-15 project in San Diego, is about $32 million--half from the federal government and the other half from participating companies and universities.

Planners say the experiment in hands-free driving could reduce congestion and crashes by removing the biggest cause of trouble: the person at the wheel.

"Ninety percent of crashes are caused by human error . . . inattentiveness, being under the influence" or other factors, said Bill Gouse, an engineer for the New York-based firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is working on the project.

Supporters also claim that the system, which would rely on computers and radar units mounted in vehicles, could help save billions of dollars as an alternative to building new lanes and conserve fuel by keeping traffic moving.

In the coming months, the magnets will be buried three feet apart and radio equipment will be installed along the stretch of Interstate 15 in preparation for the big test next August.

"This is the first such stretch of highway in the world used by the public that will be demonstrating this," Gouse said.

Ultimately, planners envision that a completely automated highway system would allow the commuters to read the newspaper or gaze at passing scenery while their cars steer themselves down specially equipped freeways--even knowing how to avoid road debris and which exit to take. Cameras and radar units mounted on the cars would allow them to travel in clusters just a few feet apart. The cars would also warn each other of upcoming moves via special radios.

"This would allow us to drive well beyond the capabilities of the car and driver," said Will Recker, a UC Irvine transportation expert who is not involved with the project. "[The cars] are in a ballet together. They're synchronized."

The result, say supporters of so-called smart highways, could triple the flow of traffic with fewer crashes and end the maddening accordion effect that can bring traffic to a crawl miles behind a motorist who simply tapped the brakes. Traffic crashes are estimated to cost an estimated $137 billion a year in the United States and congestion adds another $100 billion, specialists said. The project planners said they cannot yet estimate reliably how much it will cost to adapt highways or equip cars with such gadgetry.

Some of the high-tech features envisioned in the highway system of the future--including a "smart" cruise control that automatically adjusts for slower traffic--will appear on conventional American passenger vehicles in the next two years, said Terry Quinlan, a Caltrans engineer who is assigned to the consortium preparing next year's highway trial.

Skeptics have questioned whether a full hands-off driving system can ever be built on a large-scale basis. And there are other issues: Who will be liable for failures resulting in crashes? Will the poor be able to pay for cars carrying the needed equipment?

Those involved in the experiment say the biggest question mark will be, as ever, the human operator. Will people readily trust a machine to steer for them as they hurtle down the freeway in traffic?

Quinlan said she was "unnerved" when she first rode in a test car speeding just a few feet behind another. But, she said, "after a mile or so it's comfortable."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

New Traffic Technology

A 7.16-mile stretch of carpool lane on the San Diego Freeway will be the site next year of the first test of a computerized system using magnets in the roadway to guide packs of speeding cars, with virtually no help from drivers.

1) Smart computer chips and radar units in cars

2) Underground magnets center vehicles within lanes

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