Sept. 12, 2018

Driving research behind the unmanned wheel

Civil Engineering professor Dr. Lina Kattan (PhD) strives to understand how self-driving cars will affect the behaviour of other drivers on the road.
Dr. Lina Kattan (PhD)

If the idea of a car rolling down the street with no one behind the wheel leaves you feeling a little uneasy, you’re not alone. For many of us, the reality of having self-driving cars cruising along side us on the drive to work still sounds unattainably futuristic, save for those who grew up with Herbie. Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering are developing technologies that will not only help bring this concept to fruition but also help us understand how autonomous vehicles are changing the way we drive.

Get back in line

Global positioning system (GPS) technology can be a helpful convenience when you’re navigating new territory. But the system isn’t without flaws. We’ve all heard the stories of it leading drivers into lakes or to the wrong city. With that in mind, Dr. Kyle O’Keefe (PhD) leads research into the GPS failure rate in self-driving cars seems right on point. As the professor of Geomatics Engineering points out, GPS in a driverless car isn’t just about getting the car from point A to point B—it’s about getting there without driving off the road or crashing into the car beside you.

“My work looks at measuring the probability that the GPS won’t work in a bunch of different scenarios,” he says. “Once you go downtown it becomes very unreliable because it works by measuring the distance between you and the satellite in a direct line. When you’re downtown and you have buildings in the way. The signals tend to bounce off shiny things like glass and metal so suddenly your position will move. A lot of consumer-grade GPS units will cheat and snap you back to the nearest road. This is great if all you want is to know where you are. Not great if you want to control the vehicle.”

O’Keefe focuses some of his research on finding ways around this, such as having GPS receivers on nearby cars communicate with each other and surrounding objects, such as street signs. Since the street sign never moves, it will be able to sense when the signals aren’t as accurate and communicate this to other users nearby.

Insight in sight

While Dr. Mozhdeh Shahbazi (PhD) doesn’t focus directly on driverless cars, the information she gleans from her research could help solve some of the logistical issues these vehicles face while driving in the city. The assistant professor of Geomatics Engineering is trying to find a way for unmanned drones to map their own route in real time—without the use of GPS.

“Most drones navigate based on GPS,” she says. “It knows where it is and knows a map of the environment. Problems happen when you don’t have access to GPS. I’m working on giving drones vision-based navigation, just like how humans navigate through their environment. Based on vision, the drones will be able to see their environment, build a map in real time, detect obstacles and plan their route.”

Shahbazi says the technology would be similar in a car, though much more challenging due to the ever-changing environment. There are pedestrians, moving vehicles and a host of other factors the car needs to “see” in order to proceed safely. With a drone, she points out, the environment is static and therefore more easily assessed. 

Follow the leader

Civil Engineering professor Dr. Lina Kattan (PhD) strives to understand how self-driving cars will affect the behaviour of other drivers on the road.

“These cars can impose their behaviour on others,” she says, citing research recently conducted by one of her students. The study showed a significant reduction in traffic congestion when just ten per cent of the cars on a road were equipped with some level of connectivity and autonomous technology. “With these cars—because they are well-behaved—human drivers who are driving behind them mirror their behaviour. It’s similar to when there are police on the road. Drivers tend to be better behaved.”

Kattan says her goal is to broaden our understanding of the technology so it can be used to stabilize traffic patterns and improve city transportation. Her research has also delved into how people perceive driverless cars and whether they would be willing to use one. She says it was somewhat surprising to learn, through that work, that senior citizens would be more willing to use the technology than the younger population.