When the invitation came in to take a ride in an automated vehicle, I was excited. All the talk in the news about the impact driverless cars could have on our future has caught my attention. Just how close are we to fully autonomous vehicles? It was time to find out.
Our video producer, Chris Bunn, and I spent more than three hours driving to Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute to do some sleuthing. They had two models on display, a 2013 Cadillac SRX, which featured vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication and a 2014 Cadillac SRX with automated technology. Our rides in these vehicles took place in a controlled environment on Virginia Tech’s Smart Road. It is a 2.2-mile, two-lane road built to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) specifications.
Our journey began in the V2V communication model. So what exactly does V2V mean? V2V stands for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and is a crash avoidance technology, which relies on communication of information between nearby vehicles to potentially warn drivers about dangerous situations that could lead to a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Did V2V work? It sure did. In front of us in the dashboard, where you would normally see the radio and a built-in navigation unit, was a screen that lit up with a warning anytime we came close to doing something the SUV’s computer system didn’t like. When we sped up to a red light, a warning blared telling us it was time to hit the brakes. When we went through a mock construction zone, we were warned that the speed limit drops to 10 miles-per-hour. When a cardboard little girl raced out into the road, a big exclamation point lit up the screen telling us to stop.
Impressive? Quite. But the thing to keep in mind is that the entire roadway we were on was equipped with sensors that speak to the vehicle. In the real world, these sensors aren’t widespread yet. So while the technology does work well, the infrastructure is not yet in place to support it. But it will be soon, said Dr. Zachary Doerzaph, the director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Research (CAAR) at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. He was the driver in the V2V model.
Some higher-end models have the beginning stages of this equipment already built in. And something as simple as our cell phones could start communicating with the vehicle as well to let the driver know we’re in the middle of the road and could be in his way. As for construction zones, the workers’ cell phones could also be used as an alert. Special devices could also be built into their safety vests that could “talk” to the vehicle ahead of time.
NHTSA is currently working on V2V rulemaking and expected to release more information this year, Doerzaph said.
After spending about 20 minutes in the V2V-equipped SUV, we climbed into the automated SUV. I’ll admit, this is what I was waiting for. How much could this car do on its own? Luke Neurauter, group leader of connected and advanced vehicle system at Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute was quick to point out that the SUV we were in was “automated” not “autonomous.” The difference being that the driver still needs to take control sometimes. The car is not fully autonomous or driverless.
Both Neurauter and Doerzaph explained that automated vehicles work closely with V2V communication. That they see V2V as a stepping stone to perhaps fully autonomous vehicles someday.
Again, we came up to the construction zone and received a warning that we should slow down to 10 miles-per-hour. When we ignored the warning, the SUV took matters into its own hands and slowed us down. Neurauter said he couldn’t speed up at that point if he wanted to. He was still in control of the steering wheel, but the braking system was out of our hands until we left the faux construction zone.
There was also a period of fully automated driving where the vehicle took over steering and braking. It was just a short distance, but I have to say it was cool to see Neurauter talking with his hands, when normally they should have been on the steering. As we rounded a curve on the Smart Road, the car automatically slowed down to compensate. And at one point, a big barrier popped out of the road and the SUV’s computer system recognized it and threw on the brakes.
This is just a taste of what automated could be in the real world, but I have to say I liked it. I don’t see automated coming soon, as in we can take our hands off the steering wheel for short periods of time and let the vehicle do the driving, but I could be proven wrong. The most applicable place I see for this type of technology is highways. But they would have to be equipped with sensors that speak to the car. And since V2V is just now being considered as a feature for new vehicles, there would likely have to be many more models with this technology on the road before we see a big impact.
So just how close are we to fully autonomous vehicles? I think we still have years to go. Though technology advances quickly, I’m skeptical that we’ll see driverless models anytime soon. As the infrastructure for V2V gets implemented, we could see times where our vehicle becomes more automated as we’re driving … but the idea of our vehicle driving us to work while we catch a nap or read a book … that is a thing of the future.
Would you like to learn more about our experience? Stay tuned to glassBYTEs.com™ for our July newscast where we will take you in the passenger seat during our ride along.