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Self-driven cars and other innovative ideas

The father of the cybercar concept describes emerging urban-transport systems at a University of Minnesota gathering.

European researchers also are developing several models of fully automated “cybercars” that can operate by themselves.

To those of us who grew up singing along to tunes like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “GTO,” it’s difficult to imagine a world in which we did not need or want to own a car. But that day could be coming, at least in some of our larger and more densely populated cities.

Michel Parent, a French research scientist and the father of the cybercar concept, says shared and automated cars could be important tools to help improve mobility and reduce congestion in large urban areas.

Speaking this week at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies, Parent described tests of several innovative urban transport systems that have been under development in Europe over the last two decades.

Parent said these efforts have been driven by concern over the rising cost of owning and operating cars, social equity (for those who cannot afford cars), environmental concerns, lack of space for roadways and parking, and – most of all – traffic congestion.

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Paris is a densely developed city with “lots of congestion – always,” he said. “We’ve had congestion for 10 centuries.”

And the frustrations obviously are mounting. “The Green Party would like to see all cars banned from Paris,” Parent said.

Paris long has had one of the world’s best subway systems, with some 300 stations, 132 miles of track and 3,500 rail cars.

However, Parent said, Paris is addressing the congestion problem by investing in new trolley and bus rapid transit (BRT) lines where travel demand is high, implementing congestion pricing to control travel demand, and encouraging walking and biking. “Bike-sharing is extremely popular,” he said.

Parent said France also is testing several car-sharing systems. In the Autolib’ system in Paris, he said, 4,000 small electric cars will soon be available to be picked up and dropped off at one of 2,000 charging stations located around the city.

Once you register and obtain an identification badge, you can rent a “Bluecar” at the station of your choice and use your badge to unlock the vehicle. Cars are available by the hour, day and week. They can operate for up to 150 miles on a single charge.

Meanwhile, Parent said, European researchers also are developing several models of fully automated “cybercars” that can operate by themselves on a dedicated right of way, such as an exclusive bus lane. Their automated capabilities allow them to be put into “platoons” in order to collect them, he said.

Closer to home, Google has spent the last several years developing and testing self-driven cars. In 2010, the New York Times reported that seven test cars had driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control.

The test cars are equipped with artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver. They react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the developers maintain.

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Writing in the January issue of “Wired” magazine, Tom Vanderbilt described the experience of riding in a Google automated vehicle.

“The last time I was in a self-driving car — Stanford University’s ‘Junior,’ at the 2008 World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems — the VW Passat went 25 miles per hour down two closed-off blocks. Its signal achievement seemed to be stopping for a stop sign at an otherwise unoccupied intersection,” Vanderbilt said.

“Now, just a few years later, we are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement on a busy public highway — a stunning demonstration of just how quickly, and dramatically, the horizon of possibility is expanding.”

Vanderbilt came away impressed. He found himself “imagining how much more smoothly the system would function if every car were like this one. Even at its most packed, only about 5 percent of a highway’s surface is covered by automobiles; if cars were hyper-alert and algorithmically optimized, you could presumably squeeze many more of them onto the pavement.”

It’s also not difficult to imagine the fully automated vehicle emerging as the new version of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), but without the fixed guideways. You could have small automated vehicles zipping around high activity centers such as downtowns, university campuses, shopping centers, and large medical and industrial complexes.

Kind of the cross between “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.”

Shared cars available in Twin Cities

The concept of shared cars is not foreign to the Twin Cities. Hourcar, a project of the nonprofit Neighborhood Energy Connection, has a fleet of 32 cars available for rental in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

After paying a $50 registration fee, individuals ages 18 and over can rent “an environmentally-friendly, well maintained car” for $6 or $8 per hour and 25 cents per mile. Last fall, the group added two new plug-in hybrids to its St. Paul fleet.

Hourcar has vehicles in neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities, including the two downtowns, Midway, Uptown, Northeast Minneapolis and St.  Anthony Park.