18:00 PM

National Academy of Engineering Elects OSU's Fenton

Research Feature . . .

Pioneer of Autonomous Vehicle Research Reflects on Career

By Pam Frost Gorder

If youve ever whiled away a sleepy morning trip to the office with fantasies of your car driving itself, then Robert Fenton is your man.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recently elected Fenton to its membership, citing his pioneering work on autonomous vehicle technology in the 1960s and 70s.

Though self-driving cars arent on the market yet, many of todays cars feature technologies that were employed earlier in Fentons research. For instance, some new luxury cars use radar or ultrasound to detect objects near the car, warn drivers of collisions, and automatically adjust cruise control to maintain a safe distance from other cars.

Its a fitting legacy for Fenton, who began his career searching for ways technology could improve the way people drive. He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering with an emphasis on ergonomics from Ohio State in 1965, and never left the University. He briefly explored new designs for car control -- including one that replaced a steering wheel with a joystick -- until his interests changed.

Instead of trying to make drivers perform like an automated system, I decided to just develop the automated system, he said. No researcher truly pursued automated vehicle technology for the highway before Fenton did. Ohio State, he said, was the only place in the world that took a broad view on the subject.

Now a professor emeritus of electrical engineering, Fenton recalls a time when government money for automotive research -- and the jobs it would bring to Ohio -- ran flush. Ohio State transportation researchers convinced then governor James Rhodes to build the Transportation Research Center (TRC) northwest of Columbus in 1972. The 8,000-acre facility helped to attract automaker Honda to open a plant in nearby Marysville, and still provides a high-tech home for the University to collaborate with industry.

It was a step up from some of Fentons other testing grounds -- including the parking lot of St. John Arena, and I-270 while it was under construction. The Ohio Department of Transportation gave him permission to run cars along isolated sections of the newly paved outer belt between the suburbs of Hilliard and Dublin. The arrangement worked fine until one night, when police mistook his equipment for the refuse of teenage drag racers. They hacked everything to pieces with axes -- including a long strip of wire the researchers had carefully taped to the road.

Back then, Fentons self-driving cars needed to follow the wire to stay on course. A large protuberance stuck out from the bumper of those early models, like a trailer hitch in reverse, packed with electronics to sense the current in the wire. Later, microelectronic technology brought the control equipment back inside the vehicle, so an automated car could look like any other car.

The cars usually ran caravan style, the lightning-fast computer control allowing them to execute maneuvers beyond the capability of the average human driver. They could, for instance, automatically steer within two inches of lane center at speeds approaching 80 mph.

At the height of his work, in 1980, Fenton had planned to coordinate the movement of 250 vehicles around the TRC facility -- three real cars that were programmed to move as if they were surrounded by 247 computer-generated cars. But just then, lack of funding forced him to abandon the autonomous vehicle program.

Fenton did as much research as he could with pencil, paper, and computer. He continued his teaching career and assumed various administrative duties within the electrical engineering department.

Other autonomous vehicle labs sprang up around the country, most notably at the University of California, Berkeley, and Fenton saw a resurgence of interest in his work shortly before he retired in 1995.

Because of Californias massive traffic problems, that states department of transportation, Caltrans, studied whether self-driving cars would improve the capacity of its roadways. In 1997, Fenton had the honor of riding in a late-model autonomous car for a Caltrans demonstration in San Diego, where the assembled engineers hailed him as the pioneer of the automated highway.

That was the pinnacle of my career, he recalls.

Though Caltrans had to greatly scale back its autonomous vehicle project -- again, because of lack of government funding -- Fenton sees a time in the not-too-distant future when this kind of work is going to be critical to United States infrastructure.

This is a great time to be a transportation engineer, he said. Were needed more than ever. Right now, cities like L.A. have the worst traffic problems, but with urban growth, soon there will be L.A.s all over the country.

To new engineers just entering the field, he says they should expect that the funding is going to go up and down, and ride with the tide. You have to be able to shift goals and change as the funds change. With his election to the NAE, Fenton may be able to indirectly influence transportation funding, as the National Academies principal job is to advise the government on science and technology policy.

One of the highest professional distinctions accorded an engineer, NAE membership honors those who have made important contributions to engineering theory and practice -- including significant contributions to the scientific literature of engineering theory and practice -- and those who have demonstrated unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology.

With the addition of Fenton, Ohio State now boasts nine NAE members.