As my wife and I were digging out our cars following the latest snowstorm, my mind started to drift toward research I recently read concerning self-driving cars.
Most of the current navigation systems for automated vehicles rely on road markings. Visual cameras and sensors "see" the lines to make sure the vehicles stay where they should.
That might work well for trucks and cars in California, but what happens when the lines are obscured by ice and snow? For automated vehicles to be commercially viable, they must be able to travel in all kinds of weather—including the six inches of heavy white stuff we were shoveling from our driveway.
Researchers in Finland understand this need and are now testing autonomous cars designed for severe weather conditions. Key to their research is linking self-driving vehicles to "smart roads." If you're not familiar with smart roads, they are experimental roadways or sections of existing highways where sensors are either embedded in the pavement or arrayed alongside. The sensors pick up all sorts of information about the condition of the road and the traffic traveling on it.
A few experimental smart roads have been built in the United States, including a 2.2-mile test highway in Montgomery County, Va., and a 35-mile section of U.S. 33 in Ohio. The roads have centralized communication systems and sensors to measure moisture, temperature, lighting, weather conditions, and traffic.
The researchers at VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland are using the Finnish Transport Agency's Intelligent Aurora Road, opened in November. They have developed a robot car called Martti that is a fully autonomous vehicle built on the chassis of a Volkswagen Touareg. Martti is considered to be the first self-driving vehicle to challenge serious ice and snow.
Martti is equipped with cameras, antennas, sensors, and three laser scanners to sense environmental conditions and to guide the vehicle. In initial tests in December, Martti was able to travel 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph) in falling snow on a snow-covered road without lane markings.
Eventually, smart roads can be equipped with sensors in the same way today's highway lanes are marked with embedded reflectors. Communicating with each car, the sensors can control navigation and traffic flow. Future smart road lanes may also be able to charge electric vehicles as they drive.
It will be fun to watch as this technology continues to develop. But as advancements in self-driving trucks and cars rapidly accelerate, we need to make sure our roads and other infrastructure are also ready to meet the future.