Driverless cars a half century ago and now

Ref article "Google gets Nevada driving licence for self-drive car"

The technology being tested under Google sponsorship involves electronically substituting for human driving, sometimes imitating human senses and thought processes, and sometimes using radar principles to ascertain distances. The main purpose, per the article, seems to be to eliminate the major source of car accidents, driver interaction mistakes.

So it appears that this is being made into a viable technology, under test while gradually getting legality to its use on conventional streets.

The idea of a car being able to drive itself, is probably not new; and indeed, I had proposed a transportation system modification long ago, not with the intention of creating driverless cars, although that was a potential side effect, in that it enabled drivers to kick back and drink coffee, listen to fine music and even read the paper or snooze a bit, on certain long stretches of their daily commute. I had written this up in various forms, the last time was in 1973, I think. Let's see, that is some forty-nine years ago.

The system I had proposed - and I had originally thought its basics up circa 1967 - was not like Google's now increasingly operational system; but in many respects would have had similar usage. And was potentially creatable back then in the early 1970's at least, and would involve vastly simpler technology. Although, its vision back then was to utilize freeway systems like in Los Angeles, CA, and the national Interstate highway system, and not the surface street part of commutes.

Now, nobody is interested in my idea now, any more than was back then. So, I will rewrite it here, just for the enjoyment of readers who like exploring potential technologies and their usage - in imagination.

The basic concept was the PLL, the Phase Lock Loop. (The PLL was a basic concept that had fascinated me from back in the mid-1950's, note; thus I had thought about its basics in other uses, of course. The original purpose of the PLL was to generate a noise-free signal out of a very noisy one, in very weak radio communications.) In this usage, lets think of the PLL as a counter, that ever seeks to have a constant rate of something per some non-varying time increment. In this example, let's say that it seeks ten somethings per second; and if it did not get ten of them in a given second, it speeds something up until it is not only getting those ten somethings per second, but also has made up the missing somethings count. And if it gets more than ten, it slows down to get back to the ten per second, while also making up for any count that had been extra.

Let's make the things that are counted, be the dashes as painted on a freeway. Or maybe dots, to get more of them in a given length, for a bit more precision; the space between them will be the ultimate position accuracy of vehicles using that special freeway lane. These dashes or dots would be painted down the center of the driving lane, instead of the sides, as now are used to define driving lanes. The vehicle would follow the center line of dashes.

The car will use optical sensors to follow the line of painted-on dashes; while also the PLL will speed up or slow down the car, so that always there will be a constant number of dashes passed per second. You can see that we have a system that will enable a vehicle to follow down the freeway special lane at a predetermined speed, that will vary according to how many dashes per distance are painted on the pavement.

If the traffic engineers want vehicles to go 30 mph in a given section of roadway, they paint the dashes closer than if they want the vehicles to go faster, say 70 mph, in another section of the roadway.

And since the PLL makes up for any dashes missed or gained extra in a given second, the position of any vehicle will be precisely defined, once it locks onto a given section of roadway that has been thusly painted with the dashes. So the vehicles are all locked into position with reference to the painted dashes on the roadway, and thus they are locked into relative position with each other, thus preventing them from colliding.

The concept back then was embellished with starting and stopping temporary parking areas at freeway exits, where drivers would briefly stop to let their vehicle get integrated into the system whenever a "slot" was timed to appear in the ongoing freeway traffic stream, at the starting point; and at the driver-selected freeway off ramp and temporary parking area, the driver would then take over the driving function on surface streets. Some thought was also put into a basic vehicular condition check done automatically while parked and waiting for a space to appear in the freeway traffic; the check would probably at least verify enough fuel in the gas tank for the planned trip to a specific off-ramp.

In between, while traversing the city's freeways system or the national interstate system, the driver was free to read or sleep or simply watch the world go by; which essentially was a driverless vehicular system.

Whenever there was snow or ice, the driver had to drive, of course, since the optical sensors would have their vision blocked by the snow; but then, it takes a human driver to compensate for the somewhat unpredictable slippy-slidy nature of snow and ice. Thus this was a fair-weather traffic system, which would transfer over to the human driver when road conditions got too messy. But usually if freeways and interstates are in use by cars, they are usually fairly cleared of snow and ice, anyway. It would be of special use such as in the Los Angeles county widespread system of some six million people, many of whom endure the commute to and from work each weekday; those would be the folks most helped by this concept.

The whole system could be brought to a crawl or a stop, in emergency conditions, simply by slowing the clock that was sent by radio to all vehicles, to provide the time base for the dash rate counter. Similarly, the whole system could be slowly re-started, when the emergency had been cleared, but re-starting the radio-sent clock at an increasing rate until all was up and running at the original speeds again.

The users of the interstate system, particularly in non-winter months, would also have their long trips made far easier than it would be otherwise. And presumably safer, not so dependent on driver alertness; although as in all things technological, reliability needs to be built in to match the need level for reliability.

When I proposed this back in the late 60's and early 1970's all I got in response was blank faced apathy; or worse, angry resentment that I, as a mere tech and college dropout, would dare to propose something that the obviously much-smarter college grads had not thought of. That part has not changed much, as of now.

But Google has gotten attention for its own driverless car thing; and, apparently relatively quite quickly. There appears to be a difference between me and Google. I wonder what that is ... :-)

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