UC Berkeley press release


California Senator Boxer "amazed" by computer-controlled car during freeway demonstration last week

by Bill Stone, PATH

San Diego -- Halfway through a demonstration ride last week in a car driven by a computer, California Senator Barbara Boxer turned to UC 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 August 7, 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 at UC Berkeley, "we're not going to accommodate 40 to 60 million people. We can't keep building roads."

Boxer accepted director Varaiya's invitation to visit PATH's headquarters at the University of California at Berkeley. "I'm really serious about helping you guys out," she said.

Boxer also rode in a Honda Accord that steers using stereovision video cameras coupled with laser radar, developed by Honda Reserch and Development in conjunction with PATH.

Based at UC Berkeley, PATH is a partnership between Caltrans, the University of California, other academic institutions and private industry. It sponsors technological research and applies it to transportation problems, specifically to reduce air pollution, traffic congestion, accident rates and fuel consumption.

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