Posted by: Kenji Hall on June 3, 2009
Minority Report, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, had plenty of cues about whiz-bang technologies for the future. One that’s coming to video games soon: A gizmo that translates a user’s body gestures into on-screen movements. This week at E3, the video game industry’s big event in Los Angeles, Microsoft gave a demonstration of its Project Natal, which combines a camera, infrared sensors and sophisticated software to read the facial movements and physical gestures of a gamer standing in front of a TV screen. (Microsoft didn’t give a release date.)
Halfway around the globe, Japan is toying with another idea from Minority Report: intelligent transport systems. Remember the cars that drove themselves? Researchers at Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, or NEDO, hope to start experiments in which cars do just that—driving steadily and predictably—sometime in the next year. The concept is called “platooning” and it involves having cars move in packs, “like a flock of birds or a school of fish,” according to a NEDO brochure released in February.
The project is part of Japan’s efforts to significantly boost energy efficiency by 2050. There’s definitely a whiff of science fiction to platooning. But Japan takes energy efficiency very seriously and has shown a willingness to devote huge sums and decades to developing new technologies. What explains this single-minded drive? The oil shocks of the 1970s. After the oil shortages exposed the country’s vulnerabilities, Japanese policymakers made it their mission to cut back on their oil dependency. Japan still imports nearly all of the oil, coal, natural gas and uranium it needs to power its economy, but it now uses less energy per $1 of GDP than any other country, according to International Energy Agency stats.
Platooning would work like this: A car moving along at, say, 80 kilometers per hour would automatically move in sync with the vehicle in front of it. Each car would process information beamed from a satellite-based Global Positioning System, 3-D maps to move with the flow of traffic, and would stay within 10 meters of the cars in front and back and in its lane using distance-gauging radars, lane-finding lasers and object-recognition software on board.
The result: Not only would cars avoid crashing into each other and wasting gas with stop-and-go driving, they would also draft off of each other, cutting down on aerodynamic drag much like pro cyclists do when they race in teams.
Nissan is the only car maker taking part in the project and Denso the only car parts maker. A handful of Japanese universities and tech manufacturers, such as Oki Electric Industry, NEC and Mitsubishi Electric are also involved.
NEDO doesn’t think everyone will buy into its utopian vision. Obviously, some drivers will refuse to give up control. So researchers are looking into whether platooning would work when some motorists are driving on their own. Human behavior studies will probably play a role in perfecting the system. There will also be plenty of other human input: “Driving-control algorithms will be developed with the assistance of highly skilled eco-drivers, who will serve as role models.”