Innovators Gun It Into the Future

Times Staff Writer

Imagine driverless buses cruising on magnetized streets and pulling precisely into stations. Think about smart, chatty cars text-messaging each other about the dangerous pothole ahead and able to maneuver themselves -- without a human hand -- into tight parallel-parking spots. And wouldn’t it be useful for special eyeglasses to wake up drowsy drivers?

Actually, you don’t have to dream about these things. They exist and were among the dozens of real-world demonstrations and displays this week in San Francisco, as part of a conference to showcase the next frontier in transportation innovations.

“These are not George Jetson or Buck Rogers schemes.... The future is now,” said California Department of Transportation Director Will Kempton, who was among the 7,000 government officials, academic researchers and industry representatives from 80 countries at this year’s World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems.


Conference participants such as Kempton said the era of massive freeway construction is essentially over. So they look to technology to safely squeeze more vehicles onto existing roads and save travel time too.

The state of the art that’s generating the most buzz at this year’s convention is car-to-car communications: equipping vehicles with sensors and wireless technology so they can exchange information instantaneously about road conditions and then react quickly to hazards when human drivers fail.

On a test track at SBC Park, home of the Giants, a black BMW sport sedan splashing and skidding through a big puddle immediately signaled the silver vehicle behind it to watch out.

“Slippery road 50 feet ahead,” flashed the message on a display screen in the silver car.

A few hundred yards away at the General Motors display, Kempton climbed behind the wheel of a silvery green Cadillac test sedan equipped with what company representatives call “sixth sense.”

When another test Cadillac vroomed up in an adjacent lane, approaching Kempton’s blind spot, small lights on his side mirror flashed, warning him in case he wanted to change lanes.

He drove around a curve and found himself barreling toward the other car, which had pulled into the lane in front of him and stopped. A screen in Kempton’s car flashed a warning about a stalled vehicle ahead. Then on its own, it screeched to a halt inches from the other car’s rear bumper.

“I didn’t have my foot on the brake, and the car stopped.... That was so cool,” Kempton marveled. “These kind of technologies offer a tremendous opportunity not only for transportation but also to improve safety.”

Many of the technologies and gadgets on display at this year’s conference are not yet available to U.S. consumers, though some have already been introduced overseas. The GM “sixth sense” system is at least five years away from market, and designers hope it will cost only about a couple of hundred dollars per car, company representatives said. Other items are still being tinkered with in research laboratories, with popular use possibly a decade away.

The annual convention, which changes cities every year and won’t be back in North America for three years, is sponsored by trade groups in the U.S., Japan and Europe. At its two locations in San Francisco through Thursday, much attention is focused on avoiding collisions, not only to save lives but also to avoid the traffic jams that accidents trigger.

Inside the Moscone Center at a cluster of booths displaying inventions from Australia, Phil Burke slipped on a pair of chunky eyeglasses to demonstrate how the special plastic frame’s infrared sensors could gauge -- down to the millisecond -- eye pupil movements and the velocity of eyelid flutters.

When the glasses determine that the wearer has glazed-over eyes and appears to be on the verge of falling asleep, a speaker box nearby beeps loudly and exclaims, in a prerecorded woman’s voice: “You are too drowsy to drive safely!”

“It’s a new method of measuring drowsiness,” said Burke, chief executive of Sleep Diagnostics, a Melbourne, Australia, company that just began selling the $3,000 devices to trucking and rail companies Down Under, but has not yet done so in the U.S. “Our mission is to save lives.”

At SBC Park, Caltrans demonstrated a futuristic busway that requires no drivers. Through a system of radar and tiny cylindrical magnets embedded in the roadway, a 40-foot-long transit vehicle darted coolly down a lane, then pulled up to within an inch of the passenger boarding area.

Because the bus can steer itself much more precisely than human drivers, it requires less space than a standard 12-foot lane -- which can help public agencies trying to carve out a bus lane, said Don Dean, chief of public transit research for Caltrans.

The cost of the buses and other expenses of such a system have not been determined, but officials estimate that putting the magnets into a mile of single-lane roadway would run about $10,000.

Some of the technologies are aimed at reducing the headaches of parking.

At the Toyota display, a representative climbed into the driver’s seat and rested his hands on his thighs as his sedan -- equipped with a rear-monitoring camera, sensors and an electric steering column -- rolled forward and then edged back at a sharp angle to sandwich itself between two other parked cars.

“It’d be nice to have that for my son or wife!” quipped Ralph Boaz, a Yorba Linda transportation consultant.

Toyota’s “parking assist” feature is already available in Japan as part of a larger navigation system package that costs about $2,000. But company officials say they are unsure when it might be introduced to the U.S. market.

The level of automotive technology in the United States “is nowhere near what they have in Europe and Japan,” said Frank Viquez, director of automotive research at ABI Research, a marketing research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y. “Automakers here are reluctant to take technology that takes cars out of drivers’ hands.... If something goes wrong, you have a class-action lawsuit. The U.S. is a much more litigious environment.”

The high-tech gizmos also have their limitations, observers said. So far, the GM test cars use “sixth sense” only around other GM vehicles, and the Beemers talk only to each other. Researchers say the next challenge is for companies to agree to a common standard to allow all vehicles to communicate with each other.

Another Toyota test car -- which stops on its own when it detects a large metal object or other high-density mass, such as a brick wall, ahead -- so far isn’t as smart when it comes to recognizing soft-tissued humans.

“It cannot detect pedestrians at this point,” said Jim Bauer, a principal engineer for Toyota. “We’re researching that aspect.”