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Look Ma, no hands!

Advice like "Keep your eyes on the road" may soon be history. Computers, sensors, and satellites will do the driving for you!

You've tucked your new driver's license into your wallet and hit the open road. Behind the wheel, you skim a magazine and munch potato chips. You glance up as your car slows down to avoid a tractor-trailer up ahead, then go back to reading while your car automatically changes lanes and leaves the other driver in the dust.

Sound like an episode of The Jetsons? Think again. The future of driving is already here, with "rad" technologies that let cars control their own speeds and directions--without you lifting a finger or a foot.

Get ready for automated high-ways, systems that rely on a battery of high-tech wizardry. Satellites and magnets will help navigate your car; sensors will alert you car to every vehicle ahead, of it; and car computers will "talk" to one another. Your car's central computer will process all this information, and instruct your car just what to do.

Experts predict it won't be long before these technologies hit the road. An automated bus system would be in place within five years, says engineer Richard Bishop, who has managed the U.S. government program on automated highways. He predicts that major highways will be automated for passenger cars by the year 2010.

MAGNETS AND VIDEOS

What's a car's first lesson in "self control"? Staying on the road! One system uses magnets to keep cars in line (see diagram, p. 17). This method proved itself last summer, as crowds gawked at driverless cars cruising down a 15-mile strip of southern California highway.

A different strategy, already tested, employs a video camera mounted beside a car's rear-view mirror. The video camera examines the road ahead, and feeds what it sees into the car's computer. How does the system work? "To direct the car's steering, the computer uses the same clues you or I would," says Bishop. It looks for lines painted on the road, the boundary between pavement and dirt, or the oil spot running down the center of the lane.

The magnetic system is effective because magnetic road markers are so strong they guide and control your car even when the highway is buried in snow, Bishop explains. The video method is also effective for roads without magnets. "Future automated systems may blend the best of several technologies," Bishop says.

ROAD RADAR

Both magnetic and video-controlled highways will make the most of radar, a system planes and ships use to locate objects through pulsing high-frequency (rapid) radio waves. The pulses are reflected back by anything they strike. So imagine you're looking for a can of soda in the back seat to wash down those potato chips. Up ahead a broken-down jalopy creeps slower than a snail. Your car's radar system transmits radio waves that bounce off the jalopy back to your car. The faster the signals rebound, the closer the other vehicle is to your car. If you edge too close to the jalopy, the radar system instantly instructs your car to slow down. This system, called adaptive cruise control, is already in use in Japan. "Expect it on U.S. cars within a couple of years," Bishop says.

Next, your radar scans other lanes to see if and when there's room to pass. What if the highway is clogged with rush-hour traffic? No problem--not only will automated cars do the work, they'll do it politely! Car computers will relay information to each other--again, through radio signals fed into the computers. For example, your car might dispatch the message: "Please open up a spot," Bishop explains. The car to your left would automatically slow down enough to let you change lanes. Say goodbye to road rage!

SAVING LIVE--AND ENERGY

When scientists design automated systems, they hope to save lives. Ninety percent of all accidents are caused by human error, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Computer car-control should eliminate those crashes. But what about computer crashes? "Designers are careful to incorporate back-up systems to ensure safety," says Bishop.

Automated highways will also save energy. How? Ever watch cars or bicycles race? If so, you've seen racers save energy by drafting, or sticking close to the vehicle in front of them. The racer in front has to battle air resistance--the force of air pushing back against the vehicle. As that vehicle pushes through air, it slices the air stream in two, leaving a calm spot in the middle. The "freeloader" in back sticks to the calm spot for an easier ride.

With automated highways, all cars will be programmed to travel at the same speed, a short distance apart. So cars will save energy by "drafting" on each other. Equal speeds, and computers' quick reaction times, may also mean fewer traffic jams--and fewer fuel-guzzling stops and starts.

"Once the fully automated system is in place, drivers won't be paying attention," says Bishop. "That means the system has to be able to deal effectively with anything that comes up." But control freaks can relax. Highways will have non-automated lanes, and drivers will be able to "hold the reins" on regular side roads.

What do future drivers of America think of automated highways? "There goes all the fun out of driving," says Steve Cohen, 15, of Canton, Ohio. Not so, says Cynthia Mermia, 16, of San Antonio, Texas. "I'll study for a test or do my homework while driving. But I'll still keep an eye on the road."

RELATED ARTICLE: HOW ONE AUTOMATED HIGHWAY SYSTEM WORKS

1. Magnetic Markers Magnetized metal disks, implanted in the road, create a magnetic field.

2. Magnetometers These sensors under the car bumper tune in to the magnetic field and tell the car computer where the field is strongest.

3. Computer Steering This system uses information from magnetometers to steer the car along the magnetic path. The system also receives beams from satellites (See #5 below) and the roadside guide (see #6), so the car can follow directions.

4. Radar-Connected Brakes Radar scans for obstacles ahead. When it finds one, the computer hits the brakes!

5. GPS Satellites A Global Positioning System, or GPS receiver, process information from at least three satellites orbiting Earth. By calculating your distance from all three satellites, a dashboard computer can tell you exactly where you are on the road.

6. Roadside Guide These guides relay satellite information, and also send local travel information--such as: "Warning! Icy road ahead!"--to your car's computer. The computer can use that information to guide you to an alternate route.

7. Central Computer The "brain" of your car's automatic system, the central computer processes all information and tells your car what to do.

RELATED ARTICLE: MORE COOL STUFF

PUNCTURE-PROOF TIRES

Never learned to fix a flat? You may be in luck: Last year, Uniroyal put a self-fixing tire on the market.

Inside the rubber, the new tire has a layer of sticky, goopy material much like rubber cement. Drive over a nail and the goopy stuff automatically flows around the nail, preventing the escape of air. Yank out the nail and goop fills the hole, sealing it tight. These tires can handle most punctures--any hole as big around as a pencil, or smaller. And forget about car jacks!

ADVANCED AIRBAGS

While airbags cushion the impact of a crash, the balloons inflate so quickly they can injure passengers with their own crushing force. Soon, sensors will determine whether and how quickly an airbag should inflate in a crash. Information from the sensors is fed into a separate "airbag computer" that calculates a passenger's best chance of survival: Fast airbag, slow airbag, or no airbag at all. Sensors in the seat will measure your weight and position, to see how dangerous the airbag will be. To find out how severe a crash will be, accelerometers measure how much the car slows down when the driver slams on the brakes. Seat-belt sensors will figure out if you're buckled in--if not, airbags are essential. So are seat belts!

KEEPING CARS CLEAN

With slight changes to gas-burning engines, cars can burn fuels like ethanol (a type of alcohol made from corn), natural gas, or hydrogen. These fuels emit fewer toxic chemicals than gasoline, and less carbon dioxide--the main cause of global warming. The car below burns nothing but hydrogen, and releases only water and nitrogen as exhaust.

So why aren't all cars running on clean, alternative fuels? The main reasons: These fuels are much more expensive than gasoline--and cars can't run as far burning them. Scientists are busily cooking up cheaper solutions, including better batteries for electric cars. One promising engine runs on rechargeable batteries fueled by the mineral zinc. Unlike other car batteries, zinc batteries take only a few minutes to recharge, and can run up to 500 km (300 mi) before running out of steam. Maybe your first car won't be a gas guzzler.
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Title Annotation:automated highway systems are in development
Author:Finton, Nancy
Publication:Science World
Date:Mar 9, 1998
Words:1489
Previous Article:A day in the life: weather.
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