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Assoc. Prof. W.G. Dunford says automated cars are possible with advanced guidance technology - photo by Martin Dee
Assoc. Prof. W.G. Dunford says automated cars are possible with advanced guidance technology - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 1 | Jan. 8, 2009

The Autonomous Taxi: Safe, Driverless Cars and Automated Commuter Systems Are Now Within the Realm of Possibility

By W.G. Dunford
Assoc. Prof., Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering

A couple of generations ago it was common for communities to be tightly grouped around an employer, with most workers cycling or walking in. For various reasons, the modern worker typically lives far away from the work site and commutes.

Increased use of rapid transit is often suggested as the solution to commuting problems. This involves a large investment in a dedicated rail network, which usually results in the passenger being taken with some discomfort between points that may or may not be close to the final destinations. The trains and tracks will be empty for most of the day.

The main alternative is to travel by private car, which is typically not driven in an efficient way and then left unused for the rest of the day. The technology now exists for that journey to be controlled automatically, with the possibility of the vehicle then being used for other purposes. The autonomous taxi is at hand.

For many years research has been done on automatic control systems for cars. Some systems relied on following buried wires. Perfecting a system that would maintain a distance from another vehicle and not get confused by things like lampposts was particularly troublesome.

We have now reached a stage, thanks in part to work on guided missiles, where camera systems can do a better job than the human eye and brain. Couple this with communication of precise positions and headings of vehicles in the vicinity and you have the possibility of safe, driverless vehicles operating over existing roads. There would be no need for traffic lights or signs and vehicles would hardly ever need to stop. A central control would normally manage all vehicle movements. 

At present some people can afford to summon a conventional taxi to do their bidding. In the future most people will use a handheld device to hail an automatic vehicle. The size of vehicle, limousine to multi-occupant van, could be specified and the power source would depend on the type of journey. Short trips would use all electric vehicles and longer trips might use diesel engines or involve some sort of transporter carrying several vehicles. After use, vehicles would be maintained, charged and stored.

The user will normally not be able to do any more than specify where the vehicle should go or when a stop is desired, for example to pick up a friend. A limited amount of slow speed control will be allowed. You might want to go into the driveway to pick up a bag. However, it is unlikely that anything like a conventional steering wheel will be supplied. The user will probably point to an image on a screen and the manouevre will happen automatically.

Michael Robinson of Fiat has suggested that if warning labels are desirable on cigarettes it is even more necessary to advertise that driving can cause death. He speculates that in 50 years time driving will not even be allowed and the automatic car of the future will not need safety devices like airbags. Of course the autonomous taxi user will not need to worry about drinking or using the telephone while driving.

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Last reviewed 08-Jan-2009

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