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Autonomous cars seem to be the future of individual transportation. Personally, I’ve never minded lengthy drives — just throw on some tunes and cruise along to your destination. But for commuters and other motorists, self-driving cars could be the answer to their problems. It would allow busy drivers to multitask instead of focusing solely on the road, and most importantly, make roads a lot safer. The focus for such developments tends to be primarily on the cars, themselves. Swedish company Volvo thinks that this focus should be shifted to the roads. They’ve been testing a solution that may seem a little simplistic: magnets installed in roads.

Car-centered autonomous technology tends to be a bit fickle. Volvo argues that using methods such as GPS and other electronic transmissions can be unreliable. Magnets implanted in the roads and sensors on cars would be more reliable because magnets are unfazed by changes in weather and obstacles in the road.

The biggest hurdle for Volvo in their recently completed magnet research project was creating sensors that were able to detect objects travelling as fast as cars can. Volvo’s engineers calculated that a car travelling at about 90 mph would need a sampling rate of at least 400 readings per second. Unfortunately, typical magnetic sensors will only give you about 3 readings per second and only if they’re within close range of the object.

Thankfully, problem-solving is a vital skill for automobile engineers. Volvo’s team built a rig, to be attached to the S60 model, consisting of 15 total smaller modules of “Honeywell HMC1053” magnetoresistive sensors, all sending information to a single circuit board. This setup allowed up to 500 readings per second, making it fast enough to handle speeds over 90 mph. I thought this project was to make roads safer, but maybe Volvo considers 90 mph speeds to be a rare occurrence.

The team tested this rig on a stony forest road and on regular asphalt. The sensors implanted on the roadways were able to calculate the car’s position in a 10 cm margin at speeds ranging from 45 mph to 90 mph.

So has Volvo solved all of our autonomous car problems with magnets? Not quite. While the test results proved to be successful, the main hurdle for this project is financial. These magnet tests are experiments that focus mainly on the plausibility of a new technology on a small scale and not something that we’ll be seeing in the near future.

While a sensor rig for a car will only run you about $109, installing magnets in highways and roads will cost about $24,405 per kilometer for enough magnets to allow the sensors to function. These numbers came from California’s PATH project (http://www.path.berkeley.edu/About/Default.htm). This project involved self-driving buses that also used magnets. It faced the same financial hurdle as Volvo’s self-driving smaller passenger cars.

Is Volvo and PATH’s magnetic idea a game changer in autonomous transportation, or will we continue to focus on methods that rely on GPS and satellites in our pursuit of highway safety?

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