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PATH "Automatic Pilot" Cars Steal the Show in Europe

by Gerald Stone, California PATH Program
posted August 19, 1998

Computer-controlled, fully automated Buick LeSabres from Berkeley's PATH (Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways) Program sped past Leiden's windmills and dairy farms at 60 mph this summer, wowing European transportation experts, government officials and the press.

With no human controlling the steering wheel or gas pedal, the three LeSabres drove 3.5 miles automatically, guided by a magnetic marker system developed at the College of Engineering's Richmond Field Station lab.

The cars were the stars of Demo '98, held June 15-19 in Rijnwoude, the Netherlands, to showcase efforts at "automated vehicle guidance."

"Demo '98 certainly put the concept of the truly automated highway system, and PATH's research, on the map in the minds of the European transportation community," said PATH Director Karl Hedrick.

Sixteen major European automotive manufacturers and European Union-sponsored research programs demonstrated

automated vehicles ranging from airport parking lot shuttles to freight transports. PATH's LeSabres stole the show. The country's major and local newspapers featured the cars and PATH researchers. TV crews from several European countries taped the demonstrations, and hundreds of citizens came to ride in or see the cars in action.

PATH, the only American organization invited to Demo '98, was sponsored by the Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works, and Water Management, to demonstrate the "platoon" system.

The Demo '98 platoon used three cars on a 3.5-mile section of a still-under-construction highway, Rijksweg 11. More than 800 people took rides in the cars, and hundreds more watched in amazement as the platoon whizzed past at 60 mph, with the cars maintaining their 19.5-foot separation. During each demonstration, the middle car split from formation, changed lanes, decelerated until it was behind the other two, then changed lanes again to bring up the rear, all under fully automatic control.

Minister of Transport Annemarie Jorritsma and her entourage rode in the PATH platoon. She pronounced it "better than my chauffeur!"

PATH Director Hedrick, who is James Marshall Wells Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said, "Demo '98 was by all measures a tremendous success including technical, political and international outreach."

"The PATH platoon was the most dramatic demonstration of the possibilities of vehicle control technology," said Steve Shladover, PATH Program manager for Advanced Vehicle Control and Safety Systems. "It represented the greatest advance from today's driving conditions, and the most polished presentation in terms of user interfaces, packaging and smoothness of ride.

"Also, the weather was cold, windy, and wet, the wettest spring on record in the Netherlands, thanks to El Ni~no, and ours was the most reliable and available of all 16 vehicle demonstrations."

In the PATH platoon system, the speed and the space between cars are controlled by on-board radar, vehicle-to-vehicle data communications, and computers.

Automated steering, using a magnetic marker guidance system with on-board sensors reading the magnetic fields of magnets buried in the roadway, keeps the cars within their proper lane. By alternating the magnets' polarities (north-up vs. south-up) when installed, researchers can create a binary code that carries information about such roadway characteristics as the radius of an upcoming curve.

"The fully automated platoon system," says Shladover, "allows more cars to cruise safely on the highway than is now possible, while increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions."

An automated truck demonstration staged by the Combi-Road consortium using PATH's magnetic marker guidance system took place near Rotterdam the same week as Demo '98. Combi-Road is a large-scale project for transporting freight containers on semi-trailers pulled by fully automated tractors. The Combi-Road demonstration showed how PATH's vehicle control technology can help solve traffic congestion and safety problems.

The California PATH Program, founded in 1986 and managed by Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, is a joint venture with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). PATH applies advanced technology to increase highway capacity and safety, and to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption. PATH has researchers at six UC campuses, several other universities, and in private industry.

For information on PATH, visit the web site:

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