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Driving by satellite



January 7, 2003
by Julia Schulhof

You know the feeling; you're driving and fighting fatigue to stay on the road. Someday, it might be your car that takes over and keeps you safe. 

 It's a dark, lean driving machine with a secret. Originally built for beauty, this car has the brains to stay on any road by itself.

Dr. Christian Gerdes of Stanford University's Department Of Mechanical Engineering took us for a 'hands off' test drive. "This vehicle is equipped with a steer by wire system which electronically controls the wheels of a vehicle."

Rooftop antennas monitor several global positioning satellites and a ground station to determine the car's position. The car can knows where it is to an accuracy of less than one inch. "And it uses the information about where it is relative to our map of the road to actually turn the wheels and steer the vehicle back to the center of the lane," said Dr. Gerdes.

The project is being done as a way to turn scientific theory into reality in the form of a car. It's different from others because the system doesn't replace the driver. It works with the driver. "So if I wanted to take control of the vehicle, I can steer it and cause the vehicle to steer. So basically it's using a combination of the GPS information and my command. If I wanted to take a freeway off ramp, I’d just take the freeway off ramp."

Inside the trunk are the car's brains. It follows a digital roadmap that is made by driving the road once manually. In the future the car could use roadmaps made by other similarly equipped cars. "It’s just like the computer you have, only smaller," says Gerdes.

The prototype has two car manufacturers interested. In fact, they, along with the National Science Foundation, have helped pay to build the car.

Nevertheless, it will still be several years before you can drive off in a car like this.

posted at 2:35PM by dave.miller@walb.com

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