Carnegie Mellon University introduced its 13th generation of driverless vehicle on Wednesday at Pittsburgh International Airport.
The specially outfitted Cadillac SRX drove itself — with U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch and CMU researchers in tow — from Cranberry Township to the airport.
Raj Rajkumar directs CMU’s University Transportation Center and co-directs the CMU-General Motors Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab. He calls this latest effort the “holy grail” of autonomous driving.
“It drives autonomously at highway speeds, it takes entry ramps and exit ramps, it goes through high density traffic in suburbia, navigating complex intersections with traffic lights,” he said.
Shuster said he was pleasantly surprised at how well the vehicle handled traffic and road conditions.
“A couple of my staff people are here; they’ll tell you I’m a fantastic passenger seat driver," he said. "And a couple times I was going to tell the computer to do something, and just before I issued the order, it either slowed down or it adjusted.”
Rajkumar, Shuster and Schoch are all confident that this technology will make driving both more efficient and safer.
“Road accidents will be minimized, injuries will be reduced and lives will be saved,” Rajkumar said.
They’re also certain that driverless vehicles are the future of transportation.
Schoch doubts if his 2-year-old twins will ever have a conventional driving experience when they get older, and he said that’s a good thing.
“I’m not certain that they’re ever going to drive a vehicle the way that you and I did," Schoch said. "They may get in a vehicle, program in their destination and that vehicle will take them there, and it’ll take them there more safely and more efficiently. As a parent, it’s going to help me rest easy knowing that the vehicle will not be able to run off the road, run into another vehicle or speed.”
Driverless vehicles are also expected to be more efficient than conventional vehicles, reducing traffic and carbon emissions. Schoch used the example of congestion near the Squirrel Hill Tunnel to illustrate this point.
“By autonomous vehicles knowing that the situation is safe, they’re actually going to process more vehicles through the tunnel," he said. "The engineers … they’ve thought about this as they’ve calculated the ability of the autonomous vehicles to get through the Pittsburgh area.”
Additionally, Rajkumar said the technology will increase mobility for seniors and the disabled, and help make time spent behind the wheel more productive.
Rajkumar is quick to point out that this “holy grail” vehicle still has room for improvement. For example, the autonomous functionality of the car only works in nice weather. If snow or rain is obscuring the lines on the road, the sensors won’t be able to recognize where one lane ends and another begins.
This is where infrastructure changes come in, Schoch said.
“Using some federal research dollars, and some state dollars, we’re working with Carnegie Mellon to actually look at Pittsburgh as a pilot, to say, by the year 2040, what should we at PennDOT be doing differently to accommodate this fleet?" he said. "What should we invest in to make sure that we’re being complementary to the technology in the vehicle?”
Changes could include specially painted dividing lines that can be detected through snow and sleet, or traffic signals and signage that actually communicate directly with the car.
Another major hurdle is cost.
Driverless vehicle technology is currently still beyond the reach of consumers. Rajkumar would not divulge the total price tag of the Cadillac, but said, “This car is expensive.”
However, Schoch said he expects self-driving vehicles to enter the market in a real way by the end of this decade.
“2018-2019 is when they believe they’re going to start putting this into the fleet, to the point that it’s not going to be so cost prohibitive that people won’t make the decision," Schoch said. "In other words, it’s sort of like buying a GPS. Do you want that in your vehicle? A little bit more money, a lot of benefit.”
Rajkumar expects driverless versions of mid-priced cars to enter the market at about $5,000 to $7,000 more than conventional models.
Shuster sits on the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, and he envisions using driverless vehicle technology in a military setting.
“We can see that we’re going to be able to use this technology on the battlefield, making sure we take our men and women out of harm’s way on the battlefield,” he said.
CMU has been working on autonomous vehicle technology since 1985. This particular model has been in development for just over two years. Financial support for the project came from General Motors, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Hillman Foundation.