(WGHP) — You need to go somewhere.
You pull out your smartphone and call up an app.
You tell the app where you want to go.
Within minutes, a driverless car or van pulls up. You open the door. You get in. And the vehicle takes you where you want to go.
Believe it or not, the future in which that would happen is closer than you might realize.
“You can even think of (a future) where you may not even need to have a car,” Dr. Ali Karimoddini told me recently. Just think: no car, no maintenance, no insurance, no gas, no charging!
Sure, I doubt I’ll want to give up my family’s two cars anytime soon. But the thought of not needing them is intriguing.
Dr. Karimoddini is a professor in the College of Engineering at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. He’s also among the world’s leading authorities on autonomous vehicles, cars that essentially drive themselves.
“I think technology and self-driving cars will let you do your job, surf the internet, answer email and let your car drive. And that increases safety,” he said. “There are (also) so many disabled people, elderly people, they’re also going to be assisted with the technology and they can be (even more) effective members of the community.”
In 2020, North Carolina A&T bought a set of electric vans with drive-by-wire technology. In simplest terms, this technology uses electronic systems to control steering and activate the brakes.
Dr. Karimoddini and his students added the software to make them autonomous, and then used a 2-mile test track at the university’s Gateway Research Park in Greensboro to test them.
This fall, they tested the vehicles (called “Aggie Autos”) in a four-week pilot program in which the vans took riders on a continuous loop using public streets between the A&T campus and the downtown children’s museum with stops at both places.
Each van had a student sitting in the driver’s seat.
“First of all, the law requires it (a driver),” Dr. Karimoddini said. “But we are still proto-typing. We are testing it. It’s not commercialized yet. And in that situation, we always need a backup driver to take over the control of the car if needed.”
When I got into the second row of three rows of seats in one of the vehicles with Dr. Karimoddini, one of his students was at the steering wheel. That student touched a screen to tell the vehicle to start the journey, and we were on our way.
The “Aggie Auto” has multiple cameras on the roof, a radar panel mounted on the front bumper, and an elevated LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) sensor on the roof. The speed is capped at 25 miles per hour.
It can “look” in all directions, changing lanes when no cars are approaching and slowing down or stopping completely if it detects it’s about to run into or back into something or someone.
Dr. Karimoddini was quick to point out the technology is not “perfect” yet when it comes to intersections.
“If the light is green and it’s okay to go, the car can drive by itself. Otherwise the driver just prompts the car ‘it’s good to go’ or ‘no, stop,’” he told me.
In fact, as we approached the intersection to turn right off East Friendly Avenue onto North Church Street to approach the Brenner Children’s Museum, the light was green, the car slowed down and made the turn by itself.
It also turned into the designated drop-off/pickup spot in front of the children’s museum and stopped by itself.
A key part of all this testing is to advance the technology to a point where a driver won’t have to be on standby to take over if needed.
And no one wants a repeat of what happened in eastern North Carolina last year when a Tesla on autopilot slammed into a law enforcement vehicle parked on the side of a highway while the Tesla driver watched a movie.
“We’re not there yet,” Dr. Karimoddini told me. “But we will be.”
Dr. Karimoddini and his students will take everything they’ve learned in the campus-to-downtown-Greensboro pilot program, refine it even further and look for ways it can be better incorporated into public transportation and how that transportation can better serve rural areas.
Dr. Karimoddini feels these smaller autonomous “micro-transit” shuttles (those that carry 6 to 10 passengers) can better serve people on demand and people who live outside big metropolitan areas compared to large passenger buses.
“These (autonomous) vehicles are changing the whole transportation ecosystem, “ he said.
In terms of when we’ll see self-driving vehicles like this (without drivers) on our roads and highways, Dr. Karimoddini says it’s tough to give an estimate, but he does feel most of us will see it in our lifetimes.
I think I’m about ready to download the app!