Taking the Lead in Self-Driving Cars

Posted: August 27, 2019


Robert Fenton
Decades before self-driving cars hit the highways, Professor Robert Fenton (above) was pioneering research into autonomous vehicles. Photo credit Jo McCutly

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 says, “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.

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

One of the autonomous vehicles pioneered by Professor Robert Fenton
One of the autonomous vehicles pioneered by Professor Robert Fenton. Photo courtesy of Robert Fenton.

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 says, 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 broke ground on its SMARTCenter, which will be the largest real-world testing site for automated vehicles.

Written by Bob Beasley ’94, a freelance writer in Powell, Ohio.