Campus: CSU, Sacramento -- March 20, 2001

Herbie meets HAL - Computer Behind the Wheel

Computers that think remain the futuristic vision of sci-fi buffs. But a computer that can drive. . . that's another story.

A team of Sac State engineering students, under the direction of professor Mahlon Heller, have designed and built a computer-operated driverless "shadow vehicle" for use in protecting highway maintenance operations.

The prototype, called the Autonomous Shadow Vehicle, may someday save the lives of highway construction workers. The unoccupied vehicle is designed to replace the human-driven trucks that now follow Caltrans repair trucks engaged in low-speed operations like sweeping or paint striping.

Today, shadow trucks act as buffers on freeways to prevent drivers from rear-ending maintenance vehicles. Unfortunately, highway drivers often hit the shadow vehicles instead. Every year, shadow truck drivers are killed or seriously injured.

The Autonomous Shadow Vehicle is actually part of a two-truck package of lead vehicle and shadow vehicle. The shadow vehicle is an imposing four-ton diesel, with a battery of computers and sensors on board. It is designed to absorb the first impact if a car hits it from behind. A four-wheel drive truck with a litany of tracking equipment mounted on the back is used as the lead vehicle.

The Autonomous Shadow Vehicle automatically follows the lead maintenance vehicle at 20 to 100 feet. It can move up to 40 mph while tracking a lead vehicle such as a paint striper.

The project was funded by a nearly $700,000 grant from Caltrans, along with support from the state of Minnesota and the Federal Highway Administration.

More information is available by contacting the CSUS public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.

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