Think of it as driver education with the car as the student and you as the instructor.
That’s what it’s like in the latest version of Carnegie Mellon University’s self-driving car, a 2011 Cadillac SRX on display June 1 in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. CMU professor Raj Rajkumar gave demonstration rides to officials and the media after a news conference to announce legislation and a task force to oversee safe development of self-driving cars.
The university has been working on a self-driving vehicle for nearly three decades, but the effort kicked into high gear in February 2015 when Uber announced it would partner with CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center. Uber has located its Advanced Technologies Center in Lawrenceville and is preparing a track this spring at the Almono site in Hazelwood, the former LTV Steel Corp. plant, to test vehicles.
Rajkumar’s demonstration ride from the Bob O’Connor Golf Course parking lot to the Phipps Conservancy and Botanical Garden — a windy road filled with school buses and other parked vehicles this morning — showed the vehicle’s nimbleness and limitations. When the self-driving feature is engaged, a licensed driver must be there to override the steering, brake or gas pedal functions if something unexpected happens.
The vehicle uses a series of cameras, lasers and four computers to view and analyze everything around it. It can follow a pre-set route and abide by speed limits and traffic signals, take turns smoothly and brake or speed up as conditions require.
As Rajkumar begins to pull out from a parking spot at the golf course lot, he pushes a button to engage the self-driving feature. With Rajkumar in a “Look, Ma! No hands!” pose, the car navigates itself through the lot and around an island garden in the driveway before it comes to a stop.
That’s because, Rajkumar explained, the cameras and computers detect a car illegally parked near the driveway on Schenley Drive, limiting the view of oncoming traffic. The self-driving car won’t go until it’s told it is safe to proceed.
The car handled the Schenley Drive curves with no problem, stuck meticulously to the 25 mph speed limit, stopped smoothly at the stop sign near Phipps and slowed down briefly when it detected a group of runners crossing the road about 25 yards ahead.
As the car approached a double-parked tourist bus on the way back to the golf course, Rajkumar took control. He said he was confident the car could have steered itself safely through the area, but he thought better of it with reporters in the car.
Rajkumar, who teaches in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the industry and university are making steady progress toward a self-driving vehicle for general use. Tesla has limited, very high-end models on the road already that can drive themselves on highways and General Motors is making a big push to improve technology before it begins offering the technology for mass use.
Right now, Rajkumar said, self-driving vehicles are safe on highways but need improvements for crowded neighborhood streets. Limitations include increased cost of as much as $15,000; handling weather conditions; and reacting to unexpected events.
“It is not able to get from home to work, but can be used on the highway,” he said. “In about 10 years or so, you will be able to get from home to work.”
To make sure state laws keep up with technology and the technology follows safety standards, state Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards on June 1 announced bipartisan legislation in Harrisburg and creation of a task force to oversee technology developments.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1268, was introduced recently and would allow testing of self-driving vehicles by companies that apply and can show $5 million of liability insurance. A series of elected officials touted the potential benefits to self-driving vehicles, including reducing accidents because of distracted drivers, improving mobility for elderly or handicapped people and potential economic benefits if technology is developed and manufactured here.
The task force, which held its first meeting on June 1, is headed by PennDOT and includes representatives of state, federal, education, trucking and industry officials.
Richards said the two steps will drive “how quickly and how successfully” the new technology moves forward.
“We are intent on playing a very important role in moving this technology forward,” she said.
The technology for self-driving cars and vehicles that can communicate with one another as well as with traffic sensors are a key element of Pittsburgh’s application for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart City grant to be awarded next month. Pittsburgh is among seven cities selected as finalists for the grant, which is encouraging cities to find new solutions to traffic congestion and other transportation problems.