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Technology Newsmaker Q&A Robert Fenton

Tuesday, January 9, 2018 - 09:00
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Self-driving cars have received a lot of attention over the past several years, and we seem to be on the cusp of wider adoption. However, the idea is not new; experiments with autonomous driving have been going on since the 1920s.

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In the 1960s, Robert Fenton, a professor at the Ohio State University, was involved in groundbreaking research on driverless vehicles. He and his colleagues built and tested some of the earliest autonomous cars on roadways around Columbus, Ohio. That research eventually led to the creation of the Transportation Research Center (TRC), a massive testing facility where many modern autonomous vehicles are currently tested.

Long since retired, Fenton spoke to Aftermarket Business World about that early research.

What sparked your interest in developing self-driving cars?

I was working on my PhD., and my advisor came up with a question: How can we improve a driver’s performance? I worked on that problem. It occurred to me that we could only improve driver performance to a certain extent. It would be more important to automate the car.

How did those original driverless vehicles work?

We did several things. We put a wire down the center of the road, and we excited it with a 5Khz signal. A magnetic field surrounded the wire, and you could use that signal to keep the car right over the wire. That worked very well, and we tested it to speeds up to 85 mph.

We also tried side-facing radar that bounced signals off of the guard rail, and used the return signals to guide the car. That was an approach to automatic steering.

The difficulty with both of those is that they required cooperation from the road, and our sponsors at the Federal Highway Administration didn’t want that. They didn’t want to deal with the expense and maintenance associated with the buried wire.

Neither of those ideas, which worked well technically, ended up being a real solution.

Where did you test these vehicles?

Many places. We initially used a rural road, but it reached a point where it wasn’t safe because there were other cars on the road. We used unopened sections of highways that were under construction at the time before they were open to the public.

It finally reached a point where there wasn’t much highway left. We went to the state to propose a highway research center. We put together a dog and pony show for Jim Rhodes, who was Ohio’s governor at the time, and we had a nice little model and we told him it would cost no more than $3 million. He stood back and said, ‘You know, the trouble with you academics is you don’t think big enough.’

He wanted something on a far larger scale. We put out a bond issue for $32 million, and used the proceeds of that to build the Transportation Research Center. As soon as that opened up, we conducted all of our testing up there.

How long do you think it will be before we see mass adoption of autonomous vehicles?

Some of the car companies are claiming they’ll have deployment in 2020. I think it’s probably coming sooner rather than later. How widespread it will be, I don’t know. It’s a tough question to answer. There are so many different problems – political, psychological, legal and infrastructure problems. I don’t now how long it will take to get it all sorted out.

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