If a golf cart whizzed by you recently on the Georgia Tech campus without a driver, don’t worry — you weren’t seeing things. And it wasn’t being driven by a ghost, either.
It probably was part of a smart-car initiative announced Tuesday by Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields. The company plans to engage in “25 mobility experiments across the globe” to advance its “Ford Smart Mobility” initiative, Fields told an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Two of those experiments will take place at Georgia Tech. The first is described as “Remote Repositioning.”
“It involves an operator that is able to remotely drive real vehicles from the comfort of their office in Atlanta,” Ford Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair said in a co-presentation with Fields. “Using available technology including video cameras and sensors, streamed over a public 4g/LTE network, we used golf carts as a proof of concept. These low-speed golf carts are used on campus at Georgia Tech for transportation for administrators and faculty. If successful, this could help change car-sharing forever.”
Nair described the second initiative at Tech as “Parking Spotter.”
“We have millions of cars on the road with sensors, radars and cameras,” he said. “They’re always working, helping keep you safe. But can they do more? With our Parking Spotter experiment in Atlanta, we are testing how we can use vehicle sensors to find open parking spaces while people are driving around, then sharing the information to create a cloud-based database that other vehicles can access, making it easy for another person to find and reserve a parking space.”
Automated cars have grabbed quite a bit of attention in Georgia recently. That’s partly been driven by an explosion in automated features (such as self-parking) on car models that are already on the market.
State lawmakers hit on the idea of allowing entirely driverless cars on some Georgia roads as a sort of business-development scheme. That would go further than other states have been willing. In a hearing last fall before study committee on the topic, Georgia Tech’s transportation engineer Michael Hunter cautioned the legislators that their idea may be a bit premature.
“These steps towards it, that’s coming today — you’re going to see a lot of amazing things in the next few years,” Hunter said in a fascinating interview on GPB’s “Two-Way Street.” “But that true driverless — when you can nap while it’s driving you — I think that’s a decade or more away, probably more.”
(UPDATE: The study committee issued a report today that backed away from inviting driverless cars onto Georgia’s roads. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “The committee’s final report says Georgia should proceed with caution and not follow other states that have adopted new regulations on technology that isn’t yet fully developed.”)
Tech engineers have been among the leaders in researching “autonomous” features for cars for more than a decade, including a challenge to develop smart vehicles for the Defense Department’s DARPA unit.
Smart cars represent a particular challenge for traditional car-makers like Ford, because of much of the technology involves networking and communications. Ford says it could have trotted out a prototype with automated features at the Consumer Electronics Show (as did Mercedes), but opted instead to announce the 25 “experiments.” Google did roll out its own prototype of an entirely driverless car in advance of the show, and made bit more of a splash doing so.