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A research pioneer in self-driving cars

early autonomous test vehicleWith autonomous vehicles already being tested on the road, you might soon find yourself riding in the backseat of one. But did you know an Ohio State professor led some of the earliest research on self-driving cars and used the roads of Columbus as his test track?

Alumnus Robert Fenton, a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering, spent a lot of time in the mid-1960s and early 1970s testing his cars on unfinished portions of Interstates 70 and 270 as well as on Sawmill Road, a once-sleepy farm lane that’s now a major Columbus artery.

“At the time,” Fenton said, “our work was probably the most advanced in the world. Very few people were doing it.”

Fenton and his team placed a guide wire down the center of the roadway and ran current through it, creating a magnetic field that enabled their control of the cars. The first car was a 1965 Plymouth sedan modified with sensors and other instrumentation developed at Ohio State.

Robert Fenton“It worked beautifully,” he said. “We were automatically steering at speeds up to 85 mph.”

Unfortunately, the cost of the guide wire approach was too high to maintain on a large scale. To solve for that in later iterations, he said, the team bounced signals off guardrails and placed side-radar sensors on the car to keep it on track.

The pioneering research of Fenton and others involved in traffic projects at Ohio State led to development of the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio, in the 1970s. In July, the TRC opened its SMARTCenter, which is the largest real-world testing site for automated vehicles.

original article appeared in The Ohio State Alumni Magazine Fall 2019 issue