Say hello to "autonomous vehicles"

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In strictly technical terminology, they’re called “autonomous vehicles” or “AVs,” but of course in this reporter’s opinion, “robot trucks” seems to be a much better – and cooler – moniker.

Obviously, not all AVs are trucks. In fact, the latest designs are aimed at what one could call “short haul passenger transportation” at airports, for getting around urban areas, etc.

Take a look at “DAVe” for example – a concept vehicle that may one day get tested at Logan International Airport outside of Boston, possibly in a year or so.

This “Dual-mode Autonomous Vehicle” (that’s where the acronym “DAVe” comes from) is the creation of Alden DAVe Systems, a company whose founders – William Alden and Dick Morley – invented the programmable logic controller and forerunners of the floppy disk and handheld computers.

They developed the Morgantown PRT (personal rapid transit) system that snakes nine miles through West Virginia University’s campus over 40 years ago – a computer controlled electric-powered short rail system. You can see a short clip about the PRT below (though the video quality isn’t all that great).

Now with their new “DAVe” system, Alden and Morely are trying to create an autonomous car-like vehicle operates at the energy equivalent of 300 miles per gallon.

The inventors think a DAVe could take five to 20 individuals from home to the rail or bus system, in contrast to thefive5 or 20 autos doing the same, and the car being kept all day in an expensive parking lot. If 10% of auto commuters used DAVe, the founders believe, it would save over 8 million gallons of gasoline each week.

Part of the attraction to the DAVe is that no changes are needed to existing roadway infrastructure to deploy it – existing roads and paths and a passenger can either choose operate it or allow DAVe to do all the driving autonomously.

Improved safety is another benefit, the inventors cite, pointing out that the Morgantown PRT has had no major injuries over its operating history and carries 15,000 to over 30,000 passengers per day.

(Then again, those cute little PRT blue-and-gold robot trains don’t share the highway with dump trucks, do they?)

Alden DAVe Systems added that hopes to collaborate with a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) headed by the university’s expert in autonomous vehicles, Prof. Emilio Frazzoli, to design and build a prototype system over the next 12 months.

That’s all on the lighter end of the vehicle spectrum. On the heavy side, you’ve got real “robot trucks” like Oshkosh Corp.’s impressive Terramax vehicle.

I’ve written about this truck before and it’s easy to see why the military is so interested in it. Think about it: sending a long convoy of robot supply trucks across deserts, without the need to expose human soldiers to danger. They can even be guarded by remotely-controlled Predator drone aircraft. Now THERE is a movie concept if I’ve ever heard of one!

Of course, these big “robot trucks” still burn diesel, but under computer control, they could be set at precise speeds to maximize fuel economy.

Think of all the road trains criss-crossing Australia’s outback, or the long, boring stretches of the American West. Trucks under computer control could navigate those distances, reserving the skills of professional truck drivers for the far more intricate urban city pathways (though Oshkosh is testing its robot truck concept in urban environments, too.)

It just goes to show that futuristic robot-piloted transport vehicles of all shapes and sizes is a lot closer to reality than many might think.

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