Cars of the Future


By Gwen Myslinski

Self-driving cars, like KITT from the sci-fi, action television show Knight Rider, seemed like another fantastical futuristic fantasy created from the mind of a brilliant science fiction visionary. But, like many other small- and big-screen "futuristic" fabrications, it looks like this one will come true, too.

"Auto accidents cost society billions of dollars and too many lives, so automated systems that could increase both the safety and efficiency of our roads only make sense," said André Platzer a computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The biggest concern is that anyone who uses a computer, or really any type of machine, knows that software can be buggy and no one wants to suffer the automotive equivalent of a "blue screen of death" while driving at any speed.

How It Works

To address these issues, Platzer and his colleagues are developing a distributed control system. This system allows cars to communicate with each other, similar to a pack of wolves; so if one car reacts, every other car reacts as well. For example, if a car were to merge from an onramp to the highway, the rest of the cars would separate to make room, or if a car in front speeds up, the cars behind it would speed up too.

Using formal verification methods, the team was able to mathematically prove with 100 percent certainty that two cars on a single lane would not crash into one another. With each test, the team increased the complexity of the system to the point that they can safely control any number of cars in any number of lanes — as long as the road is straight; the system doesn't do corners . . . yet.

The Future

Platzer says that piece by piece, driverless technology is arriving. Already, some cars are equipped with automatic braking systems and warnings that alert drivers to dangerous situations; others actually take control of the wheel to help drivers parallel park. Who knows what will be added next.

"Will [today's] kids do their driver's license test first, or will robot cars do their driver's license test first?" wonders Platzer. "I don't know, but I'm working on the driver's license test for robot cars, which is difficult."


Classroom Discussion

  • If cars can drive themselves, will people still need to learn to drive? Will someone still need to be behind the controls of a self-driving car?
  • Which would have better reaction time if a deer jumped in front of a car, a self-driving car or a person driving a car? (Consider the age and the driving experience of the person.)