Technology around self-driving cars drives forward, but future still uncertain

Doug Sprinthall takes his hands off the wheel.
Doug Sprinthall of the Walser Automotive Group takes his hands off the wheel to demonstrate Subaru's EyeSight driver assist technology on 35W near Burnsville March 20, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The fatal crash of an Uber self-driving car this month shows the technology is still a work in progress. However, within a few decades, you, the driver, may not be necessary.

Self-driving cars are widely expected to become ubiquitous. And Maplewood-based 3M, which has a long history in traffic management and automotive products, sees a lot of opportunity down that road.

Autonomous cars will rely on a lot of technology, both onboard and external, such as GPS and radar to guide them. But those smart cars will also likely read road markings and signs for additional guidance and safety.

"Lane markings are particularly important," said Andrew Dubner, who leads 3M's connected roads program. "As the vehicles become more and more evolved, they will continue to look at those pavement markings."

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Andrew Dubner leads 3M's connected roads program.
Andrew Dubner leads 3M's connected roads program. The company sees many business opportunities in the expected rise of self-driving cars.
Martin Moylan | MPR News

That's a big opportunity for 3M, which has been a major player in the traffic safety business for about 80 years, supplying road signs, pavement markings and other products.

The company is working on improving the durability and visibility of the markings.

On Interstate 94 east of St. Paul for instance, you'll see high-contrast, highly reflective 3M road marking tapes. They are are easier for humans and machines to see.

And 3M has developed signs with embedded bar codes that people can't see, but a vehicle sensor can.

"It can detect that sign, classify that sign and interpret that sign very quickly and easily," Dubner said.

The company is exploring ways to make road markings detectable even when they're covered with snow or ice, too.

Back in the '90s 3M made pavement tape that contained magnetic particles to help snowplows find the edge of a snow-covered road. But the product didn't find a wide market — at that time.

3M has a 53-foot truck touring North America to show road safety products to highway officials and other customers.

Edward Jones analyst Matt Arnold says 3M seems to be on the right track to profit from autonomous vehicles.

"Given the line-up of products that they already have as well as their ability to find innovative solutions, it could be a significant opportunity for 3M," he said. "But one can't instantly assume this is going to progress quickly without setbacks along the way."

Scientist Christoph Mertz at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University agrees. He says 3M's prowess in road markings is no guarantee of a lucrative future from self-driving cars.

"I do think that lane markings are very important," he said. "But it could be that we find a technology and it's not important anymore."

Cost may be an issue. The U.S. Transportation Department recently estimated taxpayers need to spend $90 billion a year just to maintain roads in their current condition.

Three camera's look out the windshield of a Subaru.
Three camera's look out the windshield of a Subaru making up the car's EyeSight driver assistance system inside of Walser Subaru in Burnsville.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Mertz says maintenance needs may trump upgrading street marking.

"The issue is money," he said. "I think the rating is like a 'D' right now for our road infrastructure. What do you do first? Fill the potholes and then do the lane markings?"

But Mertz said the advent of self-driving cars could bring tremendous benefits. People wouldn't need a personal car, and that would mean less pollution, less land tied up with garages, parking lots and ramps, and fewer highway deaths.

"Thirty thousand people every year die on our roads," he said. "Once there's an alternative, I don't think it's acceptable."

Gov. Mark Dayton is creating a state council to address the expected development of self-driving cars and other transportation technology. He issued an executive order establishing a 22-member advisory council.

Minnesota's Transportation Department and its peers across the country are already exploring how roadways may need to be optimized for driverless vehicles.

"The automobile manufacturers are investing heavily in this technology," said state traffic engineer Jay Hietpas. "I can't give you an exact date when those vehicles are going to show up. But we think they are on their way. We think they're great in terms of safety."

He said the feds will soon come out with guidelines for pavements markings for autonomous vehicles.

"We're looking for pavement markings that can help the human driver but also set up our infrastructure for those automated vehicles as they start to come online, too," he added.

Last year, 3M and the Michigan Department of Transportation created a more than 3-mile-long connected road on a stretch of Interstate 75 outside of Detroit. It was an effort to see how a road of the future and cars of the future could interact.

3M provided advanced all-weather lane markings, retroreflective and smart signs and other components.

Sensors on a Subaru detect that the car is leaving the lane.
Sensors on a Subaru detect that the car is leaving the lane during a test drive in Burnsville March 20, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"We are now continuing that partnership and pilot to provide a permanent environment where companies can test their vehicles year-round," said Michele Mueller, the Michigan Department of Transportation's project manager for connected an automated vehicles.

3M thinks the road ahead looks good. It sees solid markets not just for its road signs and markings but also a wide array of other products and technologies, from materials that cool electric batteries to coatings that protect and enhance sophisticated vehicle sensors.

In a recent CNBC interview CEO Inge Thulin forecast that the automotive market will explode for 3M. Electronics, energy, and traffic safety are all company strong suits.

"If you take those three elements together, that is where the future is going," he predicted.

The problem with the future is sometimes it defies predictions.