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April 24 , 2003
Vol. 32, No. 20

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NAE elects Fenton

Pioneer of autonomous vehicle research reflects on career

By Pam Frost Gorder, Research Communications

If you've ever whiled away a sleepy morning trip to the office with fantasies of your car driving itself, then Robert Fenton is your man.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recently elected Fenton to its membership, citing his pioneering work on autonomous vehicle technology in the 1960s and '70s.

Robert Fenton

Though self-driving cars aren't on the market yet, many of today's cars feature technologies that were employed earlier in Fenton's research. For instance, some new luxury cars use radar or ultrasound to detect objects near the car, warn drivers of collisions, and automatically adjust cruise control to maintain a safe distance from other cars.

It's a fitting legacy for Fenton, who began his career searching for ways technology could improve the way people drive. He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering with an emphasis on ergonomics from Ohio State in 1965, and never left the university. He briefly explored new designs for car control -- including one that replaced a steering wheel with a joystick -- until his interests changed.

"Instead of trying to make drivers perform like an automated system, I decided to just develop the automated system," he said.

No researcher truly pursued automated vehicle technology for the highway before Fenton did. Ohio State, he said, was the only place in the world that took a broad view on the subject.

Now a professor emeritus of electrical engineering, Fenton recalls a time when government money for automotive research -- and the jobs it would bring to Ohio -- ran flush. Ohio State transportation researchers convinced then-governor James Rhodes to build the Transportation Research Center (TRC) northwest of Columbus in 1972. The 8,000-acre facility helped to attract automaker Honda to open a plant in nearby Marysville, and still provides a high-tech home for the university to collaborate with industry.

It was a step up from some of Fenton's other testing grounds -- including the parking lot of St. John Arena, and I-270 while it was under construction. The Ohio Department of Transportation gave him permission to run cars along isolated sections of the newly paved outerbelt between the suburbs of Hilliard and Dublin.

The arrangement worked fine until one night, when police mistook his equipment for the refuse of teenage drag racers. They hacked everything to pieces with axes -- including a long strip of wire the researchers had carefully taped to the road.

Back then, Fenton's self-driving cars needed to follow the wire to stay on course. A large protuberance stuck out from the bumper of those early models, like a trailer hitch in reverse, packed with electronics to sense the current in the wire. Later, microelectronic technology brought the control equipment back inside the vehicle, so an automated car could look like any other car.

The cars usually ran caravan style, the lightning-fast computer control allowing them to execute maneuvers beyond the capability of the average human driver. They could, for instance, automatically steer within two inches of lane center at speeds approaching 80 mph.

Courtesy of Transportation and Research Center

Sensors, like this one mounted to the bumper of a Plymouth, guided the path of early self-driving cars developed at Ohio State.



At the height of his work in 1980, Fenton had planned to coordinate the movement of 250 vehicles around the TRC facility -- three real cars that were programmed to move as if they were surrounded by 247 computer-generated cars. But lack of funding forced him to abandon the autonomous vehicle program.

Fenton did as much research as he could with pencil, paper and computer. He continued his teaching career and assumed various administrative duties within the electrical engineering department.

Other autonomous vehicle labs sprang up around the country, most notably at the University of California, Berkeley, and Fenton saw a resurgence of interest in his work shortly before he retired in 1995.

Because of California's massive traffic problems, that state's department of transportation, Caltrans, studied whether self-driving cars would improve the capacity of its roadways. In 1997, Fenton had the honor of riding in a late-model autonomous car for a Caltrans demonstration in San Diego, where the assembled engineers hailed him as the pioneer of the automated highway.

"That was the pinnacle of my career," he recalls.

Though Caltrans had to greatly scale back its autonomous vehicle project -- again, because of lack of government funding -- Fenton sees a time in the not-too-distant future when this kind of work is going to be critical to the United States infrastructure.

"This is a great time to be a transportation engineer," he said. "We're needed more than ever. Right now, cities like L.A. have the worst traffic problems, but with urban growth, soon there will be L.A.s all over the country."

To new engineers just entering the field, he says they should "expect that the funding is going to go up and down, and ride with the tide. You have to be able to shift goals and change as the funds change."

With his election to the NAE, Fenton may be able to indirectly influence transportation funding, as the National Academies' principal job is to advise the government on science and technology policy.

One of the highest professional distinctions accorded an engineer, NAE membership honors those who have made important contributions to engineering theory and practice -- including significant contributions to the scientific literature of engineering theory and practice -- and those who have demonstrated unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology.

With the addition of Fenton, Ohio State now boasts nine NAE members.



OSU career, technical center awarded grant

By Barbara Reardon, National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education Communications

The U. S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, has awarded Ohio State $1.3 million for operation of the National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education. The center is in the fourth year of a five-year award to disseminate research-based information and conduct professional development programs to improve America's career and technical education programs.

The center's director, Floyd L. McKinney, said that the center's programs emphasize the dissemination of information through professional development Webcasts and the distribution of research-based information in concise print and Web site formats. The information and professional development activities of the National Dissemination Center are made available to a wide range of audiences at the federal, state and local levels. The center maintains close working relationships with a number of secondary and postsecondary professional organizations, agencies and institutions across the country involved in the improvement of the preparation of America's workforce.

For more information about the National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education programs and services, visit the Web at www.nccte.org.



Courtesy of the College of the Arts

Tere O'Connor Dance will perform Choke at 8 p.m. May 1-3 in Sullivant Hall. Call the Wexner Center at 292-3535 for tickets.

Tere O'Connor Dance makes Columbus premiere

By Susan Wittstock, onCAMPUS staff

Although people will come to see Tere O'Connor and his company perform in Sullivant Theater May 1-3, the dances presented are a result of O'Connor's efforts to see them.

As guests of the Department of Dance and the Wexner Center, O'Connor's New York company will perform Choke and Winter Belly and he will teach several master classes to dance students. O'Connor has been a guest artist at Ohio State several times, but this marks the Columbus premiere of his company.

The movement found in Choke was inspired by people observed on New York sidewalks. "I had the dancers go out and record the actions of people they saw. They brought those into the studio and I created an abstract dance language from the movements they had gathered," O'Connor said. "It's the way I've been trying to dig into the fundamentals of this form. I want to make it almost cathartic for the viewers."

O'Connor often makes use of spoken words in his choreography, but in Choke, words are silenced.

He began conceptualizing the piece by working on a text, but found himself frustrated. "Coming to choke, I choked on words. I couldn't write after having done four text pieces," he said.

Winter Belly was created after September 11, but O'Connor said that the work is not specifically about that tragic, historic day. "I did perceive a different and new psychology in the air after that a sense of no refuge, no peaceful place to go," he said. "I'm seeing that people cannot be internal. They can't slow down, can't find peace if it isn't something you can buy."

The Village Voice described Winter Belly as "a hushed winter world, disturbed by sudden eruptions of human discord and branches crashing onto ice."

"Winter Belly is definitely about nature," O'Connor said. "I have this poetic theory that your brain is a replica of the world and you need an arctic area to go to."

Both works make use of Russian music composer James Baker created scores based on the work of Russian composers Alfred Schnittke for Choke and Sofia Gubaidulina for Winter Belly.

O'Connor didn't start dancing until 1978, when he was 20 years old. "I was an actor for my first two years at university, and then switched to dance," he said. "I've found dance to be cleaner than acting."

He chose to pursue a career as a choreographer, rather than as a dancer. "I just started when I was a really young man and made the decision to do my own work. I didn't want to have anyone else's dance language. I feel, not proud, but lucky that I had the understanding to go after what I do in life," he said.

His vocation over the last two decades has taken him throughout the United States, Europe and South America, and garnered him two New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" awards and a 1993 Guggenheim fellowship.

Although he works primarily with his company, he said he enjoys the opportunities he gets to teach. "There is something about passing on information from person to person in this form. I get a lot of energy from being around people that young. It gives me a sense outside of my own experience," he said. "It's also really heartening to see that dance university programs across the country are like Calcutta -- they're so packed with people wanting to dance."



Rural clinic initiative receives award

By Emily Caldwell, Medical Center Communications

A program providing free developmental and behavioral health assessments of Appalachian Ohio children has earned a national award for its effectiveness in delivering important childhood services to an underserved population in conjunction with training physicians, nurses, therapists, medical students and other aspiring health professionals.

The Ohio Rural Developmental and Behavioral Clinic Initiative will receive the 2003 Ambulatory Pediatric Association Health Care Delivery Award in May. The initiative was established seven years ago by the Nisonger Center, part of the College of Medicine and Public Health.

The initiative provides comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessments of developmental delay for young children at sites in six Appalachian counties, and links parents with long-term resources they need to care for their children. The developmental clinics serve children up to age 6 who have developmental delays, and the behavioral clinics serve school-age children.

All services are free to families and are hosted by county health departments and churches. The program provides referrals and care coordination by public health nurses working with local pediatricians. To date, approximately 600 children from the six host counties and 20 neighboring counties have received evaluations by assessment teams that include pediatricians, psychologists, physical and speech therapists, public health nurses, and local medical and school personnel.

"We're working to transition the program from one that primarily provides direct services into supporting a community-based, seamless system of care consistent with the medical home model," said Ronald Lindsay, medical director of the Nisonger Center. The medical home emphasizes care that is accessible, continuous, comprehensive, family-centered, coordinated, compassionate and culturally effective.

"For care to be effective, the child and family need to know the medical caregiver and develop a partnership of mutual responsibility and trust. This can be especially important for children with developmental and behavioral concerns or other special health care needs, who often need medical care far beyond what other children require," Lindsay said.

Training pediatricians to implement the medical home is also a goal. The rural clinic initiative provides training opportunities for students in pediatrics and 12 other disciplines to students from Ohio State and Ohio University through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program, also directed by Lindsay.

The initiative has been cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a model program, and it also is highlighted as a method to reduce health disparities in the 2002 U.S. surgeon general report titled "Closing the Gap: A National Blueprint to Improve the Health of Persons with Mental Retardation." The rural clinics and interdisciplinary training program at Nisonger Center receive support through several grants from the U.S. Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

The U.S. Administration on Developmental Disabilities designated the Nisonger Center as a University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. It was founded at Ohio State in 1966 to fill gaps in Ohio services for persons with developmental disabilities, provide interdisciplinary training and conduct research in the mental retardation/developmental disabilities field, and offer consultation to government agencies and nonprofit organizations.






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