It's a persistent message: Self-driving cars are coming. Yet, before the roads are filled with cars steered entirely by computers, there’s much work to be done — especially when it comes to safety.
A grim reminder of that happened this past May when a man driving a Tesla became the first to die while using autopilot mode. He was watching a DVD when his car plowed into a tractor-trailer that was crossing its path.
That accident sent a message to the engineers who are developing this technology: get it right and make it safe.
Huei Peng is one of those engineers. He's a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, and he's director of the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center.
In a piece for theconversation.com, he points to a solution: connectivity.
He says with current technologies, driverless cars are limited by the sensors they use to track obstacles and other vehicles on the road.
“[Self-driving cars] are not smart enough because they cannot see or hear clearly,” he told us. “The sensors that people have been inventing ... cameras, radars, lidars, the range they can see is no more than say, about 300 feet. They all have vulnerabilities.”
Those vulnerabilities could be minimized — or even eliminated — by a technology known as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), which is the focus of Peng’s work.
He describes it as a form of “modified Wi-Fi,” which allows vehicles to communicate directly between one another — no driver required. With DSRC, self-driving cars could keep track of the other vehicles around them, up to a range of about 1,000 feet.
That’s a big upgrade on the current 300-foot range of current sensor technology. It could translate to a major improvement the safety of self-driving cars. Peng even thinks such technology might have been able to prevent the accident with the Tesla.
So how long until DSRC appears in new cars? It may be soon.
According to Peng, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued a notice of proposed rule-making that would incorporate DSRC into safety standards. The rule is currently being reviewed by the White House.
Listen to our full conversation with Heui Peng, director of the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, above.