Automated car happenings: Better lane tracking, but can you trust it?

Autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles are making serious progress — and the mobile communications capabilities of those cars are also rapidly growing, perhaps too fast for their own security good — but they are going to run head on into a massive obstacle: human trust. It’s a big deal for someone to let go of the steering wheel and brake and trust a computer to make all of the right calls. (Heck, I am still trembling from when I taught our 16-year-old daughter to take over the wheel. And you’re asking me to trust the same operating system that crashes at least five times a week? Really?)

Two recent developments both increase trust and rip it apart. And off we go.

First, the good news with a little trust-boosting. On semiautonomous vehicles, one of the better features has been the car’s ability to keep itself inside the lane, with gentle steering and maneuvering assistance for the driver. But when it’s most needed, such as in a driving rainstorm or other weather conditions where visibility is limited and the driver might need help staying within the lines, the system typically fails. In short, if the driver can’t see the lane markings, the car’s cameras likely can’t either.

A group out of MIT has been trying to perfect a system that takes advantage of a fascinating perspective: ten feet below the road surface, where it captures images of “the subsurface combination of rocks, cavities, culvert pipes, utility infrastructure (cables, conduits, sewer lines), and reinforcing steel bar for concrete (rebar) creates a radar image uniquely different from any other part of the roadway,” according to a report in ExtremeTech.

There are a lot of things to like about this approach. First, the below-street-level data can be gathered once (via specially equipped vehicles), and it doesn’t need to be updated very often. Indeed, unless there’s construction to that area of the road — or an earthquake — there’s little reason to believe that those rocks and pipes will shift much.

This under-the-road map would theoretically allow the car to know precisely where it is — and, again in theory, precisely where the lane markers are supposed to be — and use that data to keep the car properly situated even when weather conditions are visually hiding those markers.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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