Unlikely Partner in The Self-Driving Cars Journey

self-driving cars

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The global campaign for the promotion of autonomous vehicles to the streets seems to be everywhere. Now, 3M, the worldwide famous company behind inventions like Post-It notes and Scotch tape, is helping automakers by tucking hidden messages in traffic signs that only self-driving cars can read. General Motors and Ford are working with 3M to use infrastructure to get autonomous cars on the road faster.

The company even created the first reflective signs, which are now standard on all roads. “There’s not a lot of discussion around how infrastructure is going to help vehicles get to that next level of autonomy — and it will be critical,” Colin Sultan, the head of 3M’s Connected Roads division, said in an interview.

Sultan is referring to fully self-driving cars — ones that don’t need a steering wheel because they can handle any driving scenario. Automakers like Tesla, General Motors, and Ford are pouring money into an array of sophisticated sensors and cameras that can help cars detect obstacles and locate where they are on a map. Some experts, however, argue that these sensors are not enough.

There are a few reasons for this – firstly, systems like Tesla Autopilot rely on clear lane markings to keep course on a highway. If the paint is faded, the vehicles get confused. In addition, Autonomous cars also need hyper-sensitive GPS systems to avoid objects in their path. Self-driving cars are equipped with high-definition maps that give them a sense of what a road usually looks like. If it detects an obstacle that isn’t usually there, it can maneuver to safely avoid it. But if the GPS is off by even half an inch, it can cause chaos.

“There are lots of different examples of how automated and connected vehicles may not be ready yet,” Sultan said. “How do we all work together to make sure that we can enable those vehicles on the road?” According to Sultan, that’s where 3M’s tech can help.  

As reported by businessinsider.com, the company is installing barcodes in signs that only self-driving cars can read. The codes can relay information like precise GPS coordinates or whether there’s a traffic light up ahead. The self-driving cars may not need it all the time, but the idea is the extra information is there just in case.

3M’s biggest trial of the technology refers to a 5 kilometer stretch of I-75 in Oakland County, Detroit. The company collaborated with the Michigan Department of Transportation to install its barcodes in work zone signs and construction workers’ vest so cars know to slow down and be extra cautious.  General Motors’ Cadillac CTS test sedans have been driving down the freeway to test its vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology. The vehicles aren’t self-driving but are reading the codes and alerting drivers of the work zone in advance. Sultan said 3M has trials all around the globe through partnerships with different automakers and tier one suppliers like Ford and GM.