by Gerald Stone
Halfway through a demonstration ride last month in a car driven by a computer, California Sen. Barbara Boxer turned to Berkeley engineer Satyajit Patwardhan and said, "I'm already impressed."
Neither Patwardhan in the driver's seat, Boxer nor Caltrans engineer Terry Quinlan riding in back had put hand or foot on the controls.
Instead, two Pentium-based computers in the trunk controlled acceleration, steering and braking.
Emerging from the car a minute later, Boxer called the ride, "Fabulous! I felt like I was at the Indy 500."
The Buick LeSabre that negotiated the half-mile track at Miramar College in San Diego in August, where the National Automated Highway System Consortium Technical Feasibility Demonstration (Demo '97) was held, only reached 35 miles per hour.
But on a 7 1/2-mile stretch of nearby Interstate 15, eight identical 1997 LeSabres-outfitted with computers, magnetometers and radars by engineers at the California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) program-gave demonstration rides at freeway speeds. The eight Buicks traveled exactly 21 feet apart in a "platoon," the precise gap maintained by radar.
The cars kept in their lane by following simple magnets embedded in the road surface with the help of six magnetometers mounted under the bumpers.
The purpose of the rides, and of Demo '97, was to show that an automated highway system-with its goal of improving the efficiency of existing roads-is possible with technology available today.
Asked if the system would be politically feasible, Boxer replied: "Maybe not today, but I think that's definitely what we're looking at in California for the future."
"Without it," she told PATH director Pravin Varaiya, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, "we're not going to accommodate 40 to 60 million people. We can't keep building roads."
Based in Berkeley, PATH is a partnership of Caltrans, UC, other academic institutions and industry.