You may have seen it on TV or read about it already. But just in case you missed it, earlier this month, there was a car that drove itself from Cranberry’s Community Park to Pittsburgh International Airport – a 33-mile trip – without an operator behind the wheel.
The car – which appeared virtually indistinguishable from any other Cadillac SRX crossover – was part of an ambitious experimental project by Carnegie-Mellon University and General Motors. Its goal is to develop the technology which could make practical a truly autonomous vehicle – a smart car capable of safely taking passengers anywhere they wanted to go – without the intervention of a driver.
What the news stories didn’t talk about was the fact that this car had, for most of the past year, been plying Rt. 19 here in Cranberry as its engineers worked to fine-tune their creation. But they did so with a hand from the Township: in order to help the car see and respond appropriately to traffic signals, our Public Works department installed tiny transponders at eleven intersections along the highway. Their transmitters would tell the car where it stood in the traffic signal sequence.
Eventually, of course, the car won’t need those sorts of electronic training wheels; its onboard cameras will be able to see traffic lights from a distance more reliably. Then, too, there will be other assistance the car would eventually need to blend in seamlessly with local traffic. For example, it never blows its horn. And for that matter, it doesn’t hear the horns of other vehicles nearby.
That gap in the vehicle’s performance seems to touch on the most sensitive issue of the entire project: that the car needs to interact with human drivers whose behavior is sometimes irrational and frequently a product of their local driving culture. And local driving cultures vary.
I recently met a man who had grown up in New York City, and then moved to Seattle before relocating to Pittsburgh last year. In New York, it is customary to honk your horn at the car in front of you the instant a traffic light turns green. It’s annoying, but no big deal.
When he moved to Seattle, he brought along his New York driving habits, and on his first day there, honked his horn when the light changed. People were stunned. Everyone stopped and turned to him wondering what had happened – what in the world had prompted someone to blow their horn? In Seattle, the horn is reserved for serious or life-threatening developments – not as a metronome for traffic signals.
In Pittsburgh, horns are mainly used to scold someone for either doing or failing to do something that irritates another driver. So, when we asked one of the CMU project engineers about how to program their car to respond in the local manner, he replied that they needed to identify indicators of jerk-like behavior in order to develop an algorithm. On the other hand, a separate algorithm would be needed to empower the car to offer a vehicle coming from the opposite direction the courtesy of turning left in front of it – the so-called “Pittsburgh left.”
So the autonomous vehicle is still a work in progress, and here in Cranberry, we are delighted to be part of that progress. But it’s not the first time we’ve been at the leading edge of technology. The autonomous car project is actually part of a larger partnership we have with CMU to develop traffic software using live input from our traffic management system. Our Fire Company has worked with our good neighbor MSA for years in testing prototypes of new safety equipment. And our Public Safety, Public Works and Information Technology departments have also been frequent beta sites for refining new types of equipment and software.
High-tech companies have become a pillar of Cranberry’s local economy and the Township is eager to participate in their work. We love being at the cutting edge of technology. And we want to maintain a government which is equal to the challenges that being out in front presents.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as well. Write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org