Autonomously Automated Automobile
The Future of highway transport could be driven on current roads,
It was Jean-Paul Sartre who said; L’enfers c’est les Autres, or “Hell is Others”.
So it seems more than just a little bit ironic to use the name “Sartre” for an automobile-guidance system that requires you to join others in a convoy, or “train”. So leaving aside the existential quandaries of grouping cars together, let’s just look at the practical implications.
Sartre is a guidance system that creates “trains” of cars. Once cars join this train, drivers cede control of their cars to a lead driver through a combination radio telemetry, remote controls, and GPS (called ‘telemetrics’) to enable this automated form of road travel. Perhaps the philosophical tie-in offered by the “Sartre” system is that by willingly choosing to give up some of our cherished egotism and autonomy, we can become more socially aware (safer?) on the road in the process.
At the very least, it might encourage nervous or downright bad drivers to just group themselves together, and free up some time/space for those who can more effectively navigate the mildly ordered chaos of our shared roadways.
Anybody who’s seen a high-speed (restrictor plate) car race on the banked oval of a SuperSpeedway, knows the value of drafting in a tight pack of cars, and could appreciate the benefit of being able to safely do this on a highway as well. Although, few of us would feel comfortable tucking right in behind a transport, even if we did have a CB radio to signal our intent, we could surely the imagine the aerodynamic gains and passing opportunities that would result from the reduction in aerodynamic drag and congestion…Even if this meant nothing more than removing just that one, lane hogging (and already oblivious) slowpoke out of the left lane, and improving the overall flow for everyone else. There are lots of other examples of the kind of tail-gating madness and dangerous inside passes that left-lane hogs incite in other drivers
If you think about it, automobiles (and the driving culture that surrounds them) have surprisingly changed very little in the past few decades. Not at least since the advent of fuel injection, and processor driven Engine Controls that have provided us with impressive mileage gains, even despite the offsetting performance of largely effective emissions controls.
However with more and better cars, have also come all the pitfalls of our over-populated roadways. The Future still beckons us however with it’s possibilities, and in this case it offers us highway travel in a semi- to fully-automated form of guidance, which according to the Consortium leads at Ricardo Inc. also offers the potential to improve traffic flow and journey times, offer greater comfort to drivers, reduce accidents, and improve fuel consumption and hence lower CO2 emissions.
This may seem like some sort unrealized ‘Jetsonian’ dream of the 21st century, but the remarkable thing is that this vision can exist without any major overhauls of our infrastructure, or need to install tubes!
Although it’s difficult to see how this system could be adapted via retrofits to older cars, by enhancing the already existing engineering of today’s new cars, what we’re looking at is essentially a new class of vehicles that premiere automotive companies like Volvo are obviously keen to lead the way with. Perhaps this is the sort of R&D springboard that Toyota could also take advantage of as it seeks to climb out of the damage created by its recent recall of faulty throttle mechanisms.
“This type of autonomous driving actually doesn’t require any hocus-pocus technology, and no investment in infrastructure. Instead, the emphasis is on development and on adapting technology that is already in existence.”
– Erik Coelingh of Volvo, principal SARTRE participant
As always the world of MotorSports has already offered some insight into the Future with it’s widely varied expertise in telemetry, and throttle/engine control systems. It’s still difficult to grasp how this type off system will translate to steering control as well, especially considering the wide variances in individual performance characteristics, but if the automatic parallel parking systems of today luxury sedans are any indication of where things are going, then we are certainly on the road to the Future here.
This new direction in automotive, uhm…automation isn’t necessarily a loss of person autonomy however, so long as there are still ‘open’ lanes available for manual driving. But what if our accelerators all become inevitably manageable via such telemetrics, as a “safety” feature in heavy traffic? Surely the independent spirit of Americans will assure that there are always options to the status quo, whatever that turns out to be. In the meantime lawyers would be lined up to profit from liabilities (in the name of assuring a ‘safer society’ of course), and Libertarians will surely object to any potential loss of personal freedoms, under any such perceived (or mandatory) systems of central control on America’s free and open roadways !
The various design principals behind these ‘car trains’ are still very much up for debate, but in the case of of the SARTRE project, GPS will be the key source of data. Unlike alternate systems which rely on either magnetic paint, or in sub-surface conduits to provide invisible ‘rails’ as a reference signal, the SARTRE concept enables full implementation without any need to modify existing infrastructure whatsoever!
So since we’re talking about adapting vehicles to the concept, rather than starting from scratch with entirely new roadways/systems, the devil will be in the details of controlling the individual driving characteristics of each car fitted for use in a SARTRE car-train, or “platoon” as it is also referred to.
Formula One Racing fans can already appreciate the intricacies of throttle control, and this is likely to be where the greatest benefits might be realized, even if the auto-piloted dream of SARTRE fails to realize itself, for whatever reason.
Consider at least the element of ‘grouped’ or collective throttle control on movement ans spacing, and thus being able to eliminate the accordion effect of congested traffic jams. Namely, eliminating the cumulative delays introduced by individual reaction times and the spastic stop/start/stop tenancies, which all accumulate to wasted accelerations, harder sudden braking, and full stoppages further back in the traffic pileup. Perhaps you can see how ceding autonomy to a gentle and steady throttle control protocol might someday help clear at least temporary congestion, if not offer us a safer, more automated driving experience in general.
At this early point in our forming Future, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine how the Big Auto manufacturers could ever hope to standardize their engineering and production around such the protocols for nationwide or continental automation systems, resulting in a more truly socialized road usage. The patents-pending on such underlying concepts alone would be a nightmare to navigate and appease through such an industry wide and multinational engineering effort. With so many theoretical and interdependent systems to develop however, it seems that in this case the carriage MUST be designed and put in place before the horsepower is applied.
Yet ironically this dream, like so many other Futuristic visions, has been in the works since the 1950’s, as evidenced by this patent application. Which effectively reminds us all just how long we’ve been waiting for the Future to arrive!
If you’d like to consider a perfect example of how long we’ve been waiting for the Future to arrive, you can consider this patent application from 1968 that is based in previous patents that date back into the 1950’s and one for ‘automatic steering’ that dates back to the 1930s ! ! !
” The Future ain’t what it used to be ”
– S.L. Clemens
Meanwhile back in Reality…
Most would sub-consciously presume that the potential liabilities and threats of litigation would limit such progressive ideas to private test tracks only…with few clear possibilities for the industrial protocols to underpin wider commercial support, much less the social support required to trust and buy into such technology. One could easily just relegate this high flown concept to being just another high-tech luxury for the rich and famous, and like the supersonic flights of the Concorde, it would be left to wither and die on the vine of public consciousness.
Others might simply equate this futuristic vision as simply another manifestation of a technocratic tendency to establish a ‘robot’ driven world based in Cybernetics…Which is not as widely appealing as some might presume.
Without some sophisticated gating or signaling to cars merging from onramps, negotiating passage via highway exits, on-ramps, and interchanges could become a nightmare. For example, how are safe lane changes managed from the head of a longer car-train? If the slow lane isn’t safe to drive a car-train in (due to merging traffic), would we have to cede the passing lane to these trains, and thus increase congestion in the right hand lane even more, with so many added lane changes…Which we all know are right up there with ‘rubber-necking’ when it comes to dragging traffic flow down to a congested crawl!
Keep on Trucking…
Some facts are inescapable though, and since trucking transport is already being increasingly regulated with speed limiters, then why not get some major drafting going in the slower lane behind all this trucking traffic anyhow. Perhaps then we could also look at re-establishing the lost protocols around the now almost mythical or so-called “passing” lane!
Maybe by looking at the Future, we can see how the Present could be improved based on things that we used to do in the Past!
Of course this system relies on effective leadership. So by enabling a trust in the gentle but firm guidance (benevolent fascism?) of a presumably professional lead driver, perhaps we can see our way past Sartre’s incisive observations of fallibility in the individual solipsism of the Human Condition. Thus we might all benefit from a presumably more secure, productive, and economicaly beneficial highway driving experience.
– Ricardo Inc