(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh for Boston.com)
You're on the highway, and your hands aren't on the steering wheel. The adaptive cruise control, bouncing radar signals off the next vehicle ahead, is keeping a perfect pace. The blind spot system keeps you informed, with more cameras and radar, if a car is approaching on either side, and the lane keeping system nudges the wheel back in line. You were too busy adjusting the stereo. And yet, you've been driving safely.
Semi-autonomous control is already possible on many new cars, and amazingly, it does work. It's not yet ready to let you to close your eyes and recline at 70 mph, and should you try, all sorts of bells and lights will illuminate, and then you will most definitely crash. The self-driving car is not here, not until it starts to think and act like a real person.
To get there, automakers like Ford need lots of smart people to write algorithms that can make these calculations for us. And lo and behold, that's what MIT is doing -- yet again.
MIT has been working with Ford since 1998 on everything from voice recognition to how older drivers react with modern technology. Now, one month after Ford debuted its first autonomous research vehicle, MIT (and Stanford, too) will help the company predict what people in other cars are about to do.
"How do humans do it?" says Greg Stevens, Ford's project director. "How do we make computers do the same things? We're making models."
At the Washington Auto Show last week, Stevens tells me what those spinning caps on the roof of his Fusion Hybrid can do. They're 360-degree LIDAR scanners, short for Light Detection and Ranging. Like radar, which relies on bouncing radio frequencies off physical objects, LIDAR uses low-energy laser beams. The car's LIDAR scanners can build a three-dimensional image of the car's immediate surroundings, which can let it judge distances, other objects and the road itself.
MIT is helping Ford program the software that analyzes what the scanners see. Turns out, aeronautics and astronautics professor Jonathan How has a lot of experience with autonomous cars, having led an MIT team to finish the U.S. government's grueling DARPA challenge in 2007. Its autonomous Land Rover was one of only six cars to finish the entire 60-mile course.
How and his team of students are trying to build formulas to recognize motion cues, such as another car drifting out of lane or braking hard, and to ultimately determine driver goals. Will he turn off that exit or is he just passing on the right? Is she tailgating and obviously going to come over without signaling? MIT wants to make a line of code for every possible situation.
"Once we have that complete set of sensors on the vehicle, then we can start those scenarios," says Stevens. "It's a process of elimination."
He's referring to all the myriad ways that automakers are trying to determine threats on the road. Subaru, for example, uses two color cameras to perform all tasks, such as auto-braking and collision alerts, while Volvo uses a combination of cameras and LIDAR. And software -- the way these cars interpret what may or may not be happening -- varies incredibly across every manufacturer.
Getting back to those four spinning tops on the roof: They're awkward, and Ford knows it. They used to be one foot tall and weigh 29 pounds a piece, and now are only four pounds and four inches tall. Soon, they'll be half that size, at which point Ford may be able to hide them within the car. Judging from the stacks of metal boxes and wires stuffed in the car's trunk -- and the resulting heat from all the electronics -- that won't happen overnight.
Now that Michigan has become the fourth state to allow autonomous test cars, Ford will be able to try MIT's experiments in real time. But until more data is collected -- one MIT professor has attached a dash cam to his morning commute for the better part of a year -- no one will know how to make self-driving cars work without failure.
Stevens sums it up quickly: "Right now, it's a lot of people's best guesses."
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee