Driverless Buses Make Commutes Safe, Efficient

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Tom Cruise's character in the movie "Minority Report" has no need for a driver: in his world, cars drive themselves, packed closely together and at very high speeds.

If science fact has always been in a race to keep pace with science fiction, UC Berkeley researchers have answered the challenge of Cruise's automated commute with gusto.

Using magnets and magnetic sensors implanted in both the road and vehicles for guidance, the Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) consortium plans to demonstrate its most recent strides on a San Diego highway next year.

This automated vehicle showcase will place an emphasis on transit buses and commercial trucks, all running under automatic control.

Computers inside the vehicles will monitor and relay information about speed, distance, and acceleration to one another while traveling closely together at high speeds.

The technology eliminates the need for human operators, instead employing computers to carefully control steering, brakes, and other driving functions.

"Forty years ago you had human drivers driving the elevators. Now it's ridiculous to do that. All you do (today) is you punch in your number, and it takes you to your floor. Why have humans stand there all day?," said PATH director and Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Karl Hendrick.

"The same thing with driving your car. Humans are great at driving cars around country roads and racetrack driving, that's great stuff. But just going back and forth to work everyday, you don't need to have a human."

In addition to increased driver efficiency and passenger capacity, improved traffic safety is also a driving force behind the development of automated vehicles.

Emulating rail transit systems will enhance the quality and efficiency of bus transportation services, which may ultimately prove much cheaper than the construction and maintenance of costly train tracks.

If interest in the project grows, highly automated bus systems may eventually begin to replace light rail in many situations.

An approach known as precision docking, used to reduce the time required for loading and unloading passengers, underpins much of next year's demonstration.

"The whole idea of precision docking is being able to make it possible for buses to provide a quality of service closer to what you would only get with rail systems," said PATH deputy director Steven Shladover. "So (precision docking) is aimed at making it possible to bring the bus up, very accurately, so that you could put a high level platform at the curb that would match the height of the floor of the bus."

Truck driver safety may also receive a boost from the automation research being done by PATH.

"Statistics show that a majority of the crashes that involve trucks were not caused by the trucks, but because most drivers don't understand the limitations of the maneuverability of trucks," Shladover said.

Berkeley researchers are still refining the technical aspects of the ambitious project.

Wireless communication among vehicles is a "completely new research area to look at," said Stanford University electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith, who is not a part of the PATH project.

For automated transportation systems to bear tangible fruit may take three to five years, as PATH researchers continue to grapple with the design and integration of complex communications systems, Goldsmith said.


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