Home   Syllabus   Grading   Project Generator   Video Wall   Sayings/Dichos   Class Projects

Class Projects

Bernadette Correa, SmartGrid, 5/8/2012

Project: Driverless Cars/Smart road system.

When, at the beginning of the semester, we were challenged to come up with an innovative and creative idea from which a semester project would be devised, many things came into mind. Initially I wanted to look into solar panels and see if there was any way I could think to make them better. Research led me to find out that there were many people, with many great ideas, working on this very problem. Next, I thought often of how we can make use of our "dead space", by which I mean the surface area on buildings that really isn't used for anything special. I thought that even though solar power isn't nearly efficient enough to rely on completely, perhaps it could be utilized in conjunction with current methods of power. Why not use all that dead space for solar panels/petals? I really liked this idea but felt that it was not nearly innovative enough. It was more or less just taking two things that already existed and putting them together in a new way. This is not to say that it is not innovative, but, I wanted to use this opportunity to push the tape a little.

The idea that I felt accomplished what was being asked of us was one that I had often thought of over the years and one that was definitely on my "bug" list. I have always wondered, wished, and pictured a future where you did not have to drive. How would this happen? Would it be a Star trek like system where we could simply be beamed up? These are the types of questions I would ask myself as I was making the long commute into town. Then one day it occurred to me! Being an avid video game player, I thought to myself, a computer program! There are extremely complex computer games out there, games where you have thousands if not hundreds of thousands of players signing online, interacting, all at the same time. These players are making decisions that affect other players and in turn other players are responding to these actions not to mention having to work together all from different parts of the world! So why then, couldn't something like a gaming system be used to control cars instead of characters?

Driverless cars, mind you, are not a novel idea. Google and others are currently working on such cars that utilize Google Maps to navigate and show great promise! However, I did not feel that driverless cars alone were the answer to my prayers of not having to drive anywhere. Why? Plain and simple, I did not really trust a road full of smart cars. In order to be successful I figured that the absolute key would have to be a smart system comprised of individual smart components. This system would allow open communication not only between individual smart cars, but also between smart roads. Essentially, as nearly all biological systems communicate to carry out complex actions, so would this smart system via computer programs.

How does it work?

Since all this is straight out of science fiction weekly (just think Minority Report), you'll need to use your imagination a bit. As I mentioned before, a smart system controlled by computer programs would be coordinating everything. An individual car would be in constant communication with the road, the cars around it, and the system as a whole. Currently, you have to have your complete focus on the road as well as on the other drivers around you. Ideally you need to make sure you aren't going over the speed limit, you are staying in your lane, double checking car location if you change a lane, traffic signals, pedestrians, your location, and being aware of the moving world around you and more. Now, imagine that you are in a driverless smart car. It has just picked you up and is now taking you to work where you have a meeting to present a new proposal to a prospective client. Instead of using the 15 minuets it takes to drive to work, find a parking space, and walk to your office, you could be reviewing your proposal, practicing your pitch, or even just taking a few minutes to get yourself relaxed or pepped up, and before you know it the car is dropping you off at your office door.

This communication doesn't happen magically of course. There would need to be a physical infrastructure as well as a computerized one. The physical infrastructure would be built into the roads in some fashion and include sensors, solar panels, and perhaps even a track if needed for the smart cars to run on. This physical part of the infrastructure would use all of the roads currently in existence to minimize the cost of implementation.

There would not need to be new specialized cars that needed to be made to immediately implement the system. Current vehicles would simply need to be "upgraded" to be able to communicate and function on the system. However, as newer vehicles are made they would be manufactured to run on the new system and utilize both traditional fuel as well as alternatives such a solar and/or electric. I have included several sketches of car designs in order to show the possibilities. The reasoning for electric/solar incorporation with traditional fuel is simply to reduce both monetary cost and environmental costs. Electric usage would be most beneficial in urban areas. Street parking can be used as charging stations for cars not in use. Solar can be used to charge the stations which will then be used by the cars with backup electricity on days/times when solar is not available.

Utilizing the system would be fairly simple and take no more than an app for a phone or other device. Cars could be scheduled reoccurring (as for a work/school schedule) or as needed. The supply of vehicles would need to be calculated to allow for a minimal wait time. Since this system will be primarily like a public transportation system, "usage" for travel can be done in a couple of different ways. There could be transportation plans that function much in the same way that cell phone plans work now (minus the fees, etc). Transportation plans could come in tiers ranging from low usage to high for the frequent commuter or simply by mileages. I believe this to be less than what the average driver currently pays for transportation when car payments, insurance payments, gas and maintenance is calculated. These funds would then cycle back into upkeep and maintained for the system. Initial cost for implementation would most likely be substantial but would have a very quick return rate both in safety and currency.

When the whole system is working and communicating together, what we will have is a completely autonomous transportation system. The system will be able to calculate exact arrival times, be immediately aware of problems en-route, respond quicker, and find the most advantageous routes to destinations.


There are many reasons why a system like this is needed. Some of the most obvious being the number of traffic related accidents that happen every year, especially those that result in the loss of life. In this country alone, we spend billions of dollars every year on court costs related to drunk driving, uninsured cases, traffic cases, and other vehicular related offenses. What about crimes that involve vehicles? Kidnappings, robberies, high speed chases, etc! In each individual's life, how many people that they had known would still be alive if not for a vehicle related death? Besides the saving of lives and money, there are many other reasons for this system as well.

Currently the driving age excludes many of the population. In most places those who are younger than 16 cannot legally drive or are able to drive with restrictions. Although there is not a set limit to the oldest age you can drive, we are seeing that many elderly people are losing their license or simply do not wish to drive due to the anxiety it causes. This does not include people with disabilities who for many different reasons are unable to drive. All of these individuals must rely on others for tasks that we take for granted, such as driving to the store to get groceries. A driverless smart car/smart road system would eliminate this problem. Elderly individuals could go to a movie during "rush hour" or to doctors appoints, children could get to afterschool programs like sports or tutoring even if their parents are still at work, and someone who is legally blind could jump in the car and visit a park any time they wanted to.

Science fiction?

What my idea proposes sounds far-fetched or something that one might see in a movie or novel regarding the future but I think it's a lot closer than previously thought. I believe that in reality all the pieces are there to make this happen. If I turned on the news and saw a report that this was going to begin happening next week, I would not be surprised. I only wish that I possessed all the knowledge required to do the calculations, gather the materials, write the programs, and everything else to really get the ball rolling. I imagine that the resistance to this idea would be strong at first, but, that the pros far outweigh the cons and opposition would soon wane.