Friday, July 8, 2016

By Todd Magel

[VIDEO: The future is here: Self-driving cars hit the road]

Dan McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator – an $80 million facility to test new car technology – gave

Volvo SUV – until it begins to perform in a way that's anything but normal.

"This is supervised automation," said McGehee, whose hands were not on the steering wheel as the car sped down Interstate 80 at a comfortable 60 mph. "So if I'm momentarily distracted, this is going to keep us in the lane. The future of driving is very different.

"The features that you see in this car actually came to Iowa City 20 years ago for its original testing, so it's quite exciting to see this hit the roads."

The technology to keep a car driving on the road almost by itself is complex.

The Volvo has several built-in radar sensors with cameras mounted behind the windshield, under the side mirrors, in the grill and in the tailgate.

They build up a simulated overhead view on the dash screen that looks as if the cameras are mounted 20 feet above the car as it backs up in a parking lot.

"You can see literally every crack in the road when you're driving 5 mph," McGehee said.

The clever backup screen is only one of the Volvo's enhanced features. Those same cameras help the car park itself.

The computer senses an empty space and then accelerates, brakes and steers automatically into it. The driver only has to shift forward or reverse, though seeing the wheel spin back and forth by itself takes some getting used to.

"It's not looking at the paint. It's looking at the two cars beside it," McGehee said. "This is really a window of how parking is going to work in the future."

The Volvo also has a pilot assist mode. Radar and cameras tell the car to brake, slow down or accelerate based on surrounding traffic. The computer can also read speed limit signs and automatically follow the posted speed.

"Just tap it to say, 'Let's go,' and it's going to go 40 mph," said McGehee, whose foot never touched the brake or accelerator pedal.

Perhaps the ultimate robotic feature is the lane-keeping mode. The Volvo reads the white lines and keeps the car between them, steering itself for up to 90 seconds.

"This is really to help people who may be distracted or falling asleep," McGehee said. "It's not meant to be automation."

About 94 percent of all car crashes are caused by driver error, but the features on this car can only be useful if the driver knows how to use them.

"We've found out that most people don't know that these safety systems come packed in their cars," said Alex Epstine, of the National Safety Council. "Machines don't drink and drive. Machines don't text and drive. Machines can be programmed not to speed. If you can assist human drivers in the function of driving, you're going to reduce a lot of crashes."

So how long before machines take over driving completely?

"We are going to see a very slow, incremental phase-in of the true driverless car," Epstine said. "But robots driving on the road will be a long time coming."

The specially equipped Volvo was not readily available to the general public at first but now sells for about $60,000.

The university and the Iowa Department of Transportation are also working on another project that maps out satellite images of Iowa roads.

Current satellite images are only accurate to 3 feet, but the new system would measure down to just 8 inches of accuracy.

The first section will be Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

The project, experts said, would make robotic cars more accurate in the future.