UNC explores future of transportation

RALEIGH, N.C (WNCN) – Ever since Henry Ford strapped on four wheels to the base of the Model T back in 1908, society has fostered a growing question: When will we be able to get behind the wheel of a self-driving car?

Cartoons as far back as the 1950’s predicted we would be zipping around in futuristic self-driving cars by the year 2000. Unfortunately, it’s taking us a little longer than that.

But the future of transportation may be closer than you think. A new research project at the University of North Carolina’s Computer Science Department is looking to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.

“Folks may look back at us today and wonder, ‘Why did these people ever try to drive these cars themselves?’” said Dr. Jim Anderson, a professor at UNC and the principal investigator on the project.

Anderson and his team have partnered with General Motors to create data for a more reliable, safer and cheaper autonomous car.

“General Motors gave us some funding and then together we went and got some additional funding from the National Science Foundation. As a result of these two things, this grew into a fairly large project,” said Anderson

The team was able to secure $300,000 in funding from General Motors and $1 million from the National Science Foundation.

Anderson and his team of four faculty members and four graduate students began breaking down the code; trying to figure out how to fit more computing power in a car in a realistic setting.

“It sucks up a lot of size, weight and power which are important concerns,” Anderson said. “This gets very expensive, very fast.”

The team’s goal is to give an autonomous car the reliability of a human’s split-second thinking.

“If you think about the amount of information that comes to the human brain, the vast majority of it is visual information and a big chunk of our brain is dedicated to this,” said Dr. Alexander Berg, a professor at UNC also working on the project. “These are indications that this is a challenging task.”

Google has also been experimenting with self-driving cars since 2009. Since then, the cars have driven 1.8 million miles and have been involved in several accidents.

However, Google says all of those accidents were a result of human error, but more research is needed.

“I’ve seen estimates on the cost of the hardware of Google self-driving cars being $150,000 and that’s significantly more expensive than most of the cars I’d ever think about buying anyway,” said Berg.

Still, some contend the future of ground transportation doesn’t have us anywhere near the wheel, but rather in the backseat.

“I no longer use my car. In fact, I’m probably going to sell it. I’m not sure why I even have a car anymore to be honest,” said Arathi Mehrotra, the General Manager of Uber in North Carolina.

Uber is a ride sharing service available in 58 countries and over 300 cities.

Uber North Carolina launched almost two years ago and has since had over 2 million trips in the state.

“You’re going out to date night and you don’t want to deal with parking. You’re coming back from a night out with friends,” said Mehrotra. “But we also have seen more and more riders are actually giving up their cars because uber is so affordable and they’re actually incorporating it into their daily lives — going to the grocery store or going to work. It’s becoming a part of their lives.”

Mehrotra says it’s also the innovative technology behind the convenience that helps make the option more appealing.

Options like ‘Share My E.T.A.

“If you’re coming home and it’s late at night and your loved one is waiting for you, you can actually hit a button in the app and that person will get a text with a link to your trip and they can literally watch your GPS tracked trip as you’re on your way,” said Mehrotra.

But whether you’re being chauffeured to your dinner reservations by a ride service or a self-driving car, it’s evident that the future of transportation is in fact, closer than we thought.

“It’s really because of that affordability and that convenience and I think it’s a sign of a really healthy transportation ecosystem when you have more and more transportation options,” said Mehrotra

“I’m really looking forward to it. I think that would be great,” said Berg, “I think self-driving cars will one day make our roads much, much safer.”

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