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   March 2013     


career focus
Intelligent Transportation Careers Speed Ahead

By John R. Platt

My father thought it was the coolest thing in the world the first time he got a car with cruise control. It was the mid-1970s and the height of the oil crisis. Cruise control allowed him to drive down the highway at one consistent speed without worry, and probably save gasoline in the process.

Well it is now a few decades later and cruise control has come a long way. Today's modern systems know enough to slow you down if you get too close to a vehicle on front of you — or even hit the brakes for you in order to avoid a collision. The next generation of these adaptive cruise control systems will go even further by helping to keep you within your lane if your car starts to drift to either side.

IEEE’s research on self-driving cars was just featured in a question on the popular U.S. television game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Watch the clip on IEEE’s Facebook page and see if you know the answer to the question, "With self-driving cars expected to become the norm, IEEE predicts that by 2040, drivers will no longer need what?" The IEEE-related segment begins at 0:49.

Adaptive cruise control is just one of a wave of new technologies hitting the automotive market as part of the growing field of intelligent transportation. It's a field that promises to change everything we know about driving, although the full effect of the technologies being developed today might not be known for another two or three decades. But along the way the incremental changes being developed by the industry will change the way our vehicles operate, one component at a time.

"It's not a revolution but an evolution," says Christoph Stiller, president of the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society (IEEE ITSS) and a professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.

Although fully autonomous and automated vehicles are still many years away — the recent Google "self-driving" car notwithstanding — the intelligent transportation field is growing rapidly. A study published last year by the research firm MarketsandMarkets predicted that the market for intelligent transportation technologies would grow to $24.75 billion in 2017. That's just the beginning for an industry that is expected to eventually revolutionize nearly all travel.

Three Driving Factors

Safety is the primary factor driving the intelligent transportation systems field, says Stiller. "Today we have 1 million dead people in traffic every year around the world. About 35,000 of these are in the United States, and about the same amount in Europe."

"Car crashes happen far too often," says Matthew Barth, president-elect of IEEE ITSS and a professor at the University of California, Riverside. "We need to reduce that as much as possible."

The technologies already being rolled out are helping to improve safety, but taking things to the next level will be difficult. The safety of an entirely automated system will be very hard to prove, Stiller says. "Right now I believe nobody has a path toward proving that an automated transportation system is safe, even if we had that technology." He points out that under current ISO standards, some 50 billion experimental miles would need to be driven to demonstrate the reliability of an automated vehicle. "That's one of those reasons why we need so many years, because we need to go step by step."

The second concern dominating the field's approach is mobility. As Barth puts it, "Everybody hates being stuck in congestion." Automated systems will eventually allow vehicles to pass smoothly through intersections, perhaps without the assistance of the currently ubiquitous traffic light. Getting to that point is going to take some work to accomplish, though. "How do you negotiate a good trajectory for your vehicle that doesn't interfere with others' trajectories but is efficient for all," Stiller asks. "There has to be some method for determining how you are cooperating with others so the overall traffic is optimized."

Beyond that, improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions are growing factors that the industry has embraced over the past five or so years, Barth says. Lessening traffic congestion will be a big part of this — idling vehicles are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and particulate pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other benefits will come from greater operating efficiency. "Improved communication systems will allow vehicles to have a faster reaction time than a human," Stiller says. "That will allow them to drive with more fuel efficiency."

A Field of Many Fields

Enabling intelligent transportation technologies requires a wide range of people from a wide range of fields, including electrical engineering, communications, sensors, systems engineering, software, and even non-technology fields such as psychology. The people working on these technologies, meanwhile, can be found around the world in corporations, academic labs, cooperatives, standards-setting bodies and government regulatory agencies. "The conferences in this field are incredibly diverse," says Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor in the Computer Systems Engineering Department at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Unlike a lot of other fields, the people working in intelligent transportation might not be devoting 100 percent of their efforts to automotive issues and are rarely working on entire systems. Instead, they might be working on pieces of it, such as the wireless communication aspects, or the sensors, or the software, or any number of other components. "A lot of the work they do is for use on vehicles," Miller says, "but they just don't have the broad skills or full range of resources to put an entire vehicle together by themselves."

The breadth and depth of fields working in intelligent transportation requires highly collaborative teams, says Pradip Mistry, V.P. of engineering for Cubic Transportation Systems. "The technical skills remain important, but the soft skills of being able to interact with people, collaborate with a team and communicate are invaluable in this industry."

Roadblocks Ahead?

Quite a few hurdles must be overcome before autonomous or automated vehicles become the norm, experts say.

Some of these are technological. Miller points out that the hardware on many current test vehicles adds up to as much as $250,000. "This is okay for a handful of vehicles but it is not sustainable. We're going to need these prices to come down substantially for this to be a workable system."

In addition, communication technologies must be improved, standardized and made completely reliable. "Communication systems need to be compatible between all types of vehicles and infrastructures," Stiller says. "These systems must be very safe." Sensors, software, control systems and other components must all reach the next level in order to optimize safety and operation.

Other roadblocks will come from the legal and regulatory arenas. Most states currently do not allow driverless vehicles, not even for testing. Once the vehicles finally do get on the road, even the best intelligent vehicles will still get into occasional accidents. Miller recalls an interview he conducted with a law professor who asked, "If one of these driverless vehicles gets into an accident, who's responsible?" Will it be the owner, the auto manufacturer, or the company that designed the software? "This is something the courts are probably going to have to work out after it happens," Miller says.

But even with those challenges, the next few years will be, as Mistry puts it, "exciting and challenging times" for the industry. It's also a perfect field for engineers who want to be working on cutting-edge technologies that will save lives and eventually change the way society interacts with its transportation. "It's a huge field, and engineers who have skills in any of these technologies fields are desperately sought," Stiller says. "We have the opportunity and the excitement to conduct research in this field and that's marvelous."


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.


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