Automated vehicles driving into Texas

Kathryn Cargo By Kathryn Cargo

Oct. 1, 2017 at 9:13 p.m.
Updated Oct. 2, 2017 at 1 a.m.

A Texas A&M University Transportation Institute self-driving Lincoln MKZ.

A Texas A&M University Transportation Institute self-driving Lincoln MKZ.   Contributed by Samantha Atchison for The Victoria Advocate

Every year, more than 3,500 people are killed on Texas roadways.

Self-driving, connected vehicles could help solve this safety problem, and the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute is researching different levels of automated vehicles as well as vehicle connection technology.

Gregory Winfree, institute agency director, and Christopher Poe, institute assistant agency director, spoke about connected and automated vehicles Thursday at the 2017 South Texas Transportation Conference in Victoria.

"One day, all vehicles will be connected, and a large percentage of those vehicles will be self-driving," Winfree said.

Low-level automated vehicles still require the driver to control most of the vehicle's operations and have functions like cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, Poe said. Manufacturers and researchers have developed high-level automated vehicles that are fully automated in certain conditions but not all scenarios.

The institute has an automated Lincoln MKZ that is able to drive itself in certain conditions, Poe said. Instead of developing the technology from scratch like the institute did for its self-driving golf cart, they purchased the car to speed up the research process.

Institute researchers test-drive the vehicle in a controlled environment at the university's Rellis Campus, located at an old Air Force base. Test drivers keep track of how many times they have to intervene and take control of the vehicle.

"So one of the things, really, you never want is to drive and have to take the wheel," Poe said. "We want to make the software that drives these vehicles very reliable."

Poe and Winfree had planned on bringing the Lincoln to the transportation conference to give demonstrations, but last week the car was involved in a wreck, Winfree said. The Lincoln was rear-ended by another vehicle while stopped at a red light on the way to the test site. The Lincoln was not driving itself, and the driver had control of the car.

"That's exactly the type of crash we're trying to prevent in the future," Poe said. "Humans cause more than 90 percent of all crashes. (By) developing this automated vehicle technology, we hope we can correct or eliminate all of these human errors."

Connected vehicle technology would help reduce those kinds of crashes and others, Winfree said. The institute believes automated vehicles connected to their environment, including infrastructure and pedestrians, would bring the most significant gains in safety and mobility, Winfree said.

The Federal Communications Commission dedicated a radio frequency for traffic safety, Poe said. The Texas Department of Transportation is working on technology that would transport data 10 times a second between vehicles to stop them from crashing into each other. Lawmakers are working on laws that would require auto manufacturers to put the vehicle-to-vehicle communication system in cars sold after next year.

"That would really launch this industry," Poe said. "(It) has put the industry on a holding pattern to wait to see if this rule-making will be finalized."

The institute's goal is to have the self-driving Lincoln on the road in the next few years as well as launch its automated shuttle on Texas A&M University's campus, Poe said.

Automated vehicles can have trouble reading complicated traffic systems, poor pavement markings and potholes when self-driving.

The Lincoln uses camera senors to navigate, but the institute is researching a more reliable system with 3M, a manufacturing company, which is leading the project, Poe said. Instead of cameras, the sensors would read traffic signs by scanning them like bar codes. The codes would be embedded into the signs.

The institute is also working on a project that evaluates lane departure warning systems. Researchers found out that the machines don't do as well during the daytime as at night because of the sun's reflection on roads. The institute hopes the research will result in specifications that will be available nationally.

The U.S. Department of Transportation declared Texas as one of 10 testing locations for autonomous vehicle technology in January starting with existing controlled environments, including Texas A&M University's site, according to a news release.

This year's state legislation passed bills that show Texas is open for business to support automated and connected vehicle innovation, Winfree said. Senate Bill 2205 removed the legal necessity for a licensed human to operate an automated vehicle, creating the foundation for them to drive in the state.

House Bill 1791 allows for truck platooning, which will allow semitrailers to have joint braking systems.

The institute is studying the feasibility of deploying two-vehicle truck platoons on certain corridors in Texas within five to 10 years.

The institute has partnered with more than 30 cities and entities in Texas that want to be ready for automated cars and possibly be test sites, thus forming the Texas Automated Vehicle Proving Ground Partnership, Poe said. The institute will provide expertise needed from research to help solve problems public or private entities would have.

It will be at least 20 years before the majority of vehicles on the road are connected, automated or both, Winfree said. Local government politicians need to plan for autonomous cars to join the market because transportation infrastructure is planned 20 years in advance.

"If you know in 20 years X percent of vehicles will be connected and automated, you want to have the ability for that system to operate as efficiently as possible, " Winfree said.


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