Reporter 430, 1 February 1999

Cruising along the road to an automated future

Tyres that identify icy roads and activate the brakes, steering wheels that self-adjust for gusts of winds, gears that get sick of your clumsy crunching and take control themselves. Sounds like they belong on a 'car of the future'? Don't bet on it. The mechanical engineer leading a £500,000 University project to develop the technology is convinced most of us will be driving one within twenty years.

"The next two decades will see a significant difference in the way we drive and think about driving our cars," says Dr Andrew Plummer. "Motorway convoys of cars all controlled electronically to travel nose-to- tail at the same speed may sound far fetched, but it's inevitable. It has to happen otherwise the roads will just be permanently snarled-up."

Dr Plummer and Dr Warren Manning are embarking on a three year project in mechanical engineering to develop the 'intelligent' motion control technology that could raise the probability of such road-trains.

The integrated system they are developing for car manufacturer Rover will use sensors on the wheels, suspension and brakes to monitor variables such as the road condition, weather, and vehicle weight distribution. This information is fed to a central controller which automatically applies the brakes or steers the wheels to help cope with any adverse conditions. "It all happens so quickly that the driver probably won't even notice the problem before the system corrects it," says Dr Manning. "For example, driving in windy conditions would be completely smooth and far safer as the steering would be constantly adjusted to prevent the car being blown about."

The technology could make it physically impossible to force the car into a skid, and to speed, but is unlikely to be used to such extremes at first. "It will probably be used as a driver-assistance tool when it's first fitted, similar to power steering, anti-lock brakes etc" says Dr Plummer. "For example it could make it difficult to turn the steering wheel if the sensors indicated the car would skid, but you could still do it with enough force."

The system will also be able to judge the competence of the driver and provide assistance where necessary - good news for those who think the racing line is where the cars line up at the start of a race. "It will be able to learn individual driving styles or drivers will actually be able to program in their personal preferences," says Dr Plummer.

The technology being developed is based on the fly-by-wire approach now prevalent in aircraft. Pilots rarely physically steer the plane through mechanical means and instead punch a series of numbers into the on- board computer. This would remove the need for a steering wheel and allow the car to be effectively driven with a joystick. The lack of steering wheel would make driving car less physical and, therefore, easier for some people with disabilities. It would also make cars safer in accidents as many injuries sustained are from impact with the steering wheel.

Electronics currently make up 20 per cent of the cost of modern cars but Dr Plummer does not believe including such a complex computer system would force up the price. "It will probably start as an optional extra in much the same way as airbags, electric windows and even radios did, but all these features tend to become standard fairly quickly."

They will need to standard if Dr Plummer's vision of an automated highway system - with each car sensing and responding to those around it - is to be realised. However, road rage and traffic jams may not be conquered so easily. "We are working with Rover but the real challenge will be making the sensors compatible with any similar systems developed by the other manufacturers. If they can't talk to each other then the jams will be as bad as ever."

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