On a sunny day last January, people flocked to Las Vegas to zip around a parking lot in small vehicles that looked more like colorful eggs than ordinary cars. The automobiles were electric, rolled on two wheels instead of four and held only two passengers. Thanks to their tiny size, six of the vehicles would fit in a parking spot. If the idea of parking such a small car makes you nervous, don’t worry: These cars can park themselves.
And return to their owners, when summoned by a button on a cell phone.
The vehicle is called the EN-V (pronounced like envy). It is built by the General Motors, or GM, car company and points to what future automobiles might be like. One day, such small, electric vehicles might safely shuttle people around, especially in crowded cities.
Scientists and engineers are finding new ways to make cars safer, smarter and more efficient, or use less energy. New cars may help you keep track of your health by reminding you to take medication. If it’s electric, your car may send you a text reminding you to plug it in. Cars will talk to other cars, your computer, your phone and almost any other device. They’ll help drivers save energy, watch out for other drivers and avoid pedestrians.
This is the future of automobiles: safer, smarter and more energy-conscious. As an added bonus, they might even drive themselves down the highway or through a city. You can sit back and enjoy the ride.
Who needs drivers?
Google is well known for its Internet search engine, but last year the company hit the highway. It sent a fleet of six self-driving cars into the world. Each wore a contraption on the top that looked like a wide metal headband topped by a small, spinning cylinder. People rode inside, but only to give directions and ensure that the car ran correctly.
The cars zipped all around northern California. They navigated the turns of the Pacific Coast Highway, a narrow road that hugs California’s rugged coastline. They crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and zigzagged down the eight tight turns of San Francisco’s Lombard Street, one of the crookedest streets in the world. All in all, the cars put on 225,300 kilometers (140,000 miles).
The company wasn’t just showing off. Google’s researchers have safety in mind, and the computer programs behind these cars are designed to turn roads into safer places. A computerized car, they say, won’t be distracted by phone calls or iPods. Using video cameras, radar sensors and lasers, the cars detect other autos and obstacles, which can help avoid crashes. Around the world each year, traffic accidents kill more than one million people and injure 50 million others.
“People who see our technology understand its potential to make driving safer and cut down on traffic,” says Sebastian Thrun, the engineer and computer scientist in charge of Google’s self-driving car program.
Until recently, the idea of a car that drives itself could be found only in science fiction. In the early 1980s, the television show Knight Rider featured a talking, thinking, bulletproof car named KITT. In episode after episode, the main character jumped in the car, gave some instructions and off they’d go to fight crime and solve mysteries.
In the real world, safety is the name of the game. André Platzer, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, points out that driverless trains have been running safely for years. In Detroit, an automated train has been shuttling people through downtown since 1987. At airports like the Denver International Airport, automated trains take people to their planes. In some ways, trains have it easy: They move only forward or backward, accelerating or braking. Building automated cars is a more complicated project.
“A car has lots of decisions, not just going forward and backward,” Platzer says. “You can always steer left and right, or steer left and right a little bit or a lot. There are other cars around, and then there are pedestrians, and all of a sudden the traffic light changes to red and all these other things.”
A car that drives itself must know what other cars are doing, which means managing a lot of information. At Carnegie Mellon, Platzer and his colleagues write computer programs that test the safety of self-driving cars. He says that self-driving cars will probably not be available to buy and use within the next few years, but they’re getting closer. Already, some new cars come with automatic braking systems and warnings that alert drivers to dangerous situations.
And as for parking? Self-driving cars have that covered, too. Ford, BMW, Toyota, Lexus, Lincoln and Mercury already offer cars that can take control of the wheel to help drivers parallel park.
Platzer says that piece by piece, driverless technology is arriving. “We need to gain some experience and build in some safety technology and make sure people can rely on this,” he says. “If I want to sit in the car and read my newspaper and drink my coffee and not watch the road, then that’s something I can do only if I have enough trust in the system to handle all of the different situations in a reliable and safe way.”
My car, my friend, my nurse
Companies like Google are making cars smarter, safer, more independent — and friendlier. Future cars might get to know the people who ride inside.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, in Cambridge, scientists have designed AIDA, which stands for Affective Intelligent Driving Assistant. AIDA is a small, white robot with glowing blue eyes that sits on the dashboard, watching the driver. The robot gives directions and uses a video camera to watch your face and recognize your emotions. It will try to cheer you up when you’re in a bad mood. AIDA also communicates with the world outside and helps you choose routes to avoid traffic jams or accidents.
Ford Motor Co. wants to let cars help out with a person’s health. The car’s onboard computer will communicate with medical devices, like a glucose monitor worn by a diabetic person. People with diabetes have to watch what they eat because their bodies have a hard time keeping sugar, or glucose, in balance. If blood sugar levels get too low, a person could become disoriented — or even pass out. Soon, Ford’s cars might help drivers keep track of their body chemistry.
Still other cars are being designed to respond to the habits of their owners. One of those owners is Nick Pudar, who lives near Detroit. When he returns to his home, he has to remember to recharge his phone. He also has to remember to recharge his car.
“I’m still not in the habit of that,” says Pudar, the Vice-President of Business Strategy for OnStar, which helps cars made by GM communicate wirelessly with the world. Pudar drives a Chevy Volt, which is mostly powered by electricity instead of gasoline. If Pudar forgets to plug in his car, at 10 p.m. it calls to remind him. That way, he won’t be stranded with a dead battery the next morning.
Our lives already sap electricity with household appliances, computers and gadgets. If everyone plugs in their cars at the same time, the network of electricity suppliers and carriers might be overloaded and malfunction. There’s only so much electricity available at any one time.
When we flip a switch and the light comes on, we don’t think about where the energy comes from. Pudar says the electricity supply is like a box that makes rope, with a little rope hanging out the side. When you use electricity, it’s like pulling rope out of the box. The more you need, the faster you pull the rope, and the harder the rope-making box has to work to provide rope.
“Every box has a limit, and if you pull too fast, too hard, it can’t keep up,” Pudar says. “That’s a blackout.”
Later this year, OnStar will test a program to help GM’s electric cars. Instead of charging as soon as they’re plugged in, the cars will use information from the electric company and charge themselves when power is least costly or most available. In general, people use less electricity in the middle of the night, so this might be the best time to recharge. Pudar says electric cars need to be able to “talk” with the electric company, and vice versa, so they can both be smarter about energy.
Along for the ride
In 2009, Platzer climbed into a self-driving Chevy Tahoe named Boss. The car was designed by his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon. Two years earlier, it had won  a competition where self-driving cars navigated through city streets, an honor that brought the researchers a cool $2 million prize. Platzer calls himself a “correctness guy,” and he was a little nervous about trusting his life to the machine.
“Right after the start signal, Boss hit the gas and rocketed forward, and I felt a bit like [I was] in a rollercoaster. Only those are safe, because they simply follow the tracks,” he says. “Boss didn’t have any tracks to follow…. The curve came closer and closer, yet Boss still didn’t hit the brakes. It actually didn’t hit the brakes until long after I would have. That was a rather odd feeling.”
Platzer trusted his colleagues, so he wasn’t too worried. Still, he says, scientists have a lot of work to do before self-driving cars can safely hit the streets. But like the masses that turned out in Las Vegas to watch the egglike EN-Vs glide silently through the parking lot, he’s excited about the future. It’s coming, and fast.
“Will [today’s] kids do their driver’s license test first, or will robot cars do their driver’s license test first?” wonders Platzer. “I don’t know, but I’m working on the driver’s license test for robot cars. Which is difficult.”
electricity The supply of electric current to a house or other structure for heating, lighting and powering appliances.
glucose A simple sugar and important energy source.
technology The use of scientific information for practical purposes, like devices or machines people can use.
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Have an idea about electric cars or cars in general? GM wants to hear about it. Email the company at: Adam.Denison@onstar.com .
J. Raloff. “Cars are learning to drive .” Science News blog, July 10, 2008.
E. Sohn. “Ready, unplug, drive .” Science News for Kids. October 28, 2008.
E. Sohn. “Robots on the road, again .” Science News for Kids. October 13, 2005.
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