Page last updated at 12:16 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 13:16 UK

Automatic cars 'slash journey times'

Ce-Cert car
The car was entered in the US Defense Department's competition
A new "self-driving car" developed in America has the ability to drastically cut traffic jams by increasing the flow of traffic up to three times, its developers have told the BBC.

The car, which features revolutionary "drive-by-wire" systems which means the wheels are no longer connected to the steering wheel, was built by the University of California, Riverside's College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology (Ce-Cert) and Dotmobil, a French company.

Matt Barth, from Ce-Cert, told BBC World Service's Digital Planet programme that the "human factor" is the primary cause of delays on road networks - and so his automatic car can promise vastly quicker journeys.

"We have a slow reaction time - a couple of seconds - and we have aggressive behaviour, which causes the stop-and-go action that we often come across," he said.

"But if vehicles can talk to each other through wireless communication - and you have these control systems that can react more quickly than a human can - then you can smooth out traffic, and potentially get three times the amount of flow compared to a highway with manual drivers."


The Ce-Cert car, which is able to literally drive itself along the highway, was built by the team to participate in the Darpa grand challenge - an event designed to test the abilities of autonomous vehicles.

Although it failed to make the final, its developers have high hopes for its future.

"When we did the qualification for this race, we spent quite a bit of time in the parking lot and on local roads just testing to see how well it would go," said Dr Barth.

"Really this thing was doing quite well, being able to drive essentially by itself."

Matt Barth
The car can say, 'hey look, we'd better start braking because there's a car or a pedestrian that's coming in the middle of the lane
Matt Barth
The car's rear seats have been removed and the area instead houses the pre-programmed computer system that guides the car around.

It avoids crashing through the use of two cameras just inside the front windscreen, effectively the "eyes" of the vehicle. On the bumper are two large sensors - laser systems which send out infrared light - scanning the road ahead many times a second and getting a range measurement from it.

"It can see what's coming up ahead: a car that's in front of it, a pedestrian that's stepping out in front," Dr Barth explained.

"That comes back, more or less, as an image. The car can say, 'hey look, we'd better start braking because there's a car or a pedestrian that's coming in the middle of the lane'."

But what makes the car unique is its drive-by-wire system, which means that it is electronic signals that control the steering, acceleration and braking - effectively rendering the traditional steering wheel and pedals redundant.

"The auto manufacturer actually takes signals directly from the steering wheel, and there's no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the wheels - it's all by wire," Dr Barth said.

"You're sending signals from that steering actuator to the motor system on the wheels."

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