At first blush, it doesn’t seem as though Post-It Notes and autonomous vehicle (AV) infrastructure could have anything in common, right? But to bring self-driving cars to our streets and highways requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. One of those hands is 3M.
The Way-Back Machine
Once upon a time — the 1960s, in fact — engineers were already fretting over our overcrowded highways, and looking for solutions. The usual suspects of mass transit (high-speed trains, hover cars and so forth) were possibilities, but so was the far-fetched idea of autonomous cars. According to a piece on electronic highways appearing in IEEE Spectrum, two Ohio State University engineers were working on autonomous technology for cars even then.
Convinced that Americans would never entirely surrender their personal cars for mass transit, this engineering duo set to work devising a way for self-driving cars to operate using some type of hardware built into highway surfaces. It was an infrastructure/hardware approach. This solution dominated AV thinking for the next 35 years. Not until the last decade did the focus move from hardware to software, making AVs truly feasible. One key aspect of the original idea, though, survived: infrastructure.
Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology allows an AV to communicate with stationary objects around it: traffic lights, road signs and the like. There may be a day when such overt forms of communication won’t be needed since AVs operate as a hive, talking to one another in Borg fashion; but in the shorter term, at least, traffic lights and road signs will still bring order to our streets.
As computers assume more and more control of our cars, they must be able to interpret traffic lights changing from green to red and understand the meaning of road signs: stop, yield, lane ending, construction zone and so on. Audi already has a technology for some of its newer cars to communicate with traffic lights. A pilot program is underway in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In addition to manufacturing Scotch Brand tape, Post-It Notes, Ace Brand bandages and a host of other everyday items, 3M makes reflective road signs. As a matter of fact, according to IEEE Spectrum, 3M invented the reflective road signs we use every time we drive our cars.
Upping its game, 3M is now using its expertise to embed barcodes in reflective signs to help AVs pinpoint their exact position and alert them to road situations, such as upcoming traffic lights and construction zones.
Currently, IEEE Spectrum reports that 3M and the Michigan Department of Transportation are beta-testing this technology on a 3-mile stretch of I-75 in Detroit. Embedding barcodes in work zone signs and on the reflective vests of construction workers, AVs interpret the messages and slow down.
What it means to you: V2I technology is a critical piece of the self-driving cars puzzle. This 3M barcode technology brings us another step closer to AVs.