From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published October 25, 2011 09:15 AM

Automated Vehicles and the Future of Fuel Efficiency

Cars these days are becoming more and more like computers on wheels. Many car enthusiasts long for the days of simpler designs where they can figure out exactly what's going on under the hood. With all the advanced electronics in newer vehicles, trying to fix them yourself has become a daunting task. However, as more sophisticated electronics are added, cars will gradually become smarter, to the point where they may even drive themselves. Automated vehicles, while most likely not adopted by everyone, will probably make the road safer and more convenient for some "drivers". Plus, according to a new research study, they will have the extra benefit of increasing fuel efficiency.


The study, led by Nady Boules, director of GM's Electrical and Controls Integration lab, was meant to find ways of making driving more convenient and safe. Increased fuel efficiency, they found, is an added bonus. Researchers suggest that increased automation could reduce congestion, and even allow for the redesign of vehicles, making them lighter. If there were never any accidents, heavy steel frames and bodies may not be necessary.

The real fuel savings will come when cars become fully automated, i.e., they can drive themselves without anybody inside. A prime example of this is looking for parking on a crowded city street. Drivers would no longer have to circle blocks looking for spots. Their vehicle can drop them off at the destination, and go off looking for a spot on its own. It could park miles away if necessary, and come back to pick up the driver with notification from a smart phone.

Fully automated vehicles will be able to talk to one another, allowing them to drive at higher speeds at much closer distances, greatly reducing congestion. There would no longer be mile long backups because one person slammed on their brakes. There would no longer be that slow driver getting off the line at a traffic light, allowing only a few cars to get through. And there would no longer be any crazy speeders zipping by at 90 miles an hour.

There is much research going on to make automated cars a reality. Major auto companies have their R&D teams working on it. The Department of Transportation is sponsoring work that will allow traffic lights to communicate with smart cars. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has sponsored a contest to develop automated vehicles for urban streets. Even Google has thrown its hat in the game.

However, new regulations that govern how the automated system will work still have to be drafted and approved. Self-driving cars will not be simply allowed on the streets with no laws behind them. One likely legal question may be, if an automated vehicle crashes, who is at fault? Is it the owner or the manufacturer? Or could it be another vehicle which sent it a faulty signal? Or the red light that failed to communicate properly? Laws will have to change. Car insurance will have to change.

Police enforcement will also have to change. What will a cop do if it pulls over a vehicle with no one in it? How will an automated vehicle pay for parking?

But most of all, traditional drivers will have to adapt. Imagine driving down the road and seeing a car next to you with no driver. We can't have people fainting behind the wheel.

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Image shows driver reading newspaper and drinking coffee behind the wheel. Image credit: Volvo Car Corporation

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