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...And I'd Like A Robotic Car

Phil wants weather control and a robot - now and yesterday respectively.

My wild dream is to spend my daily commute doing something besides driving. And I spend far too much vacation time driving. I'd like to get in the car, punch a few buttons or say, "Take me to work" and then later, "Home, James."

For my vacation, I'd get my van to drive through the night while my family and I slept. It might wake me every few hours to pump gas - but then, if we're talking about automating a complex activity such as driving, couldn't we get robotic full service?

stanley.jpgThis dream is inching closer to reality thanks to last week's DARPA Grand Challenge. Last year you may recall that no vehicle finished the race. This year five vehicles finished the 132-mile course through the Mojave Desert. This wasn't a walk in the park (or a straight drive across a salt flat):

...people in the spectator tent watched on with awe when Stanley drove over and down Beer Bottle Pass, which has 1,000-foot drops and hairpin turns. The packed crowd cheered when the car made it around the first switchback and then began chanting "Stanley, Stanley" as it drove down.

Stanley, pictured above right, won. DARPA is thrilled:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) today announced that five autonomous ground vehicles successfully completed the DARPA Grand Challenge, a tough, 131.6-mile course in the Mojave Desert. The results prove conclusively that autonomous ground vehicles can travel long distances over difficult terrain at militarily relevant rates of speed.

That's a government agency expressing unrestrained enthusiasm.

A tough course of stationary obstacles is nothing compared to the challenge of bumper-to-bumper traffic. But the fact that five vehicles successfully completed the course just a year after the 2004 washout indicates, I think, just how fast this field is advancing.

In a few years "autodrive" will be available as an option on luxury cars. Then, it will become an option on most cars, then standard on most cars, and, finally, mandatory. Then the steering wheel will disappear. And although far fewer of us will be dying on the highway, we'll probably get nostalgic for the joy of driving.

Unlike cars built to autodrive on "smart" highways, "smart" cars would immediately benefit from the entire highway infrastructure. We wouldn't be paying more for a feature that we could only use on a few experimental roads. On the other hand a "smart" car could probably be made safer and more efficient by "smart" roads. The smart car could be the bridge technology to the smart road.

I'm the right age to appreciate the fact that the winner of this smart car race was a Volkswagen. Too bad they didn't use this model and paint scheme:

herbie_love_bug.jpg

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds thinks this is a big deal. He explains why over at Tech Central Station.

UPDATE II: Ivan at "I, K-bot" points out the difference between the DARPA challenge and normal on-road driving.

As I stated above, there is a world of difference between negotiating around stationary obstacles and dealing with other moving traffic. As the variables mount, the system will have to learn what to pay attention to and what to ignore - just like a human driver - but, hopefully, safer.

And safty is the key. Sure, many of us would like the convenience of a robot driver. Some of us might even sacrifice a bit of safty to have one today.

But "autodrive" is never going to happen until manufacturers can demonstrate that these systems are as safe as the "reasonable person." In fact, it might not happen until it can be demonstrated to be as good or better than the best human drivers.

But that might not take very long.

UPDATE III: Possible law journal article: "The Slippery Slope: Holding Machines to the Reasonable Person Standard."

Comments

For those all-night family drives what you really need is a robotic RV with a bathroom you can use on the road.

How long before the self-drive capability is applied to gryoplanes? Which will we have first, flying cars or robotic flying cars? For the latter, one presumably wouldn't have to learn how to fly!

I don't think I could ever get comfortable with the idea of the car doing all the driving.

K.I.T.T. was a great idea, but I can also think of two movies that more than make up for it: "The Car" and "Christine."

Then again, supposedly those cars were owned and operated by Satan, so maybe that's a moot point.

But still......I think I'd like to retain some measure of control over my own vehicle.

(Great. Now my brain will be replaying that horrible horn-blowing laugh "The Car" used to play every time it would mow somebody down.....)

Off-road driving doesn't have much to do with freeway driving. It is actually much more demanding, but generally very different.

There have been systems built to allow a car to drive itself at freeway speeds under good conditions for quite some time. The issue is that simple things like fog, rain, the sun, etc. can muck up vision systems pretty easily.

This is why more advanced sensors such as radar and lasers are necessary.

There are some things that make driving on roads much easier. The lane lines, the other car you could possibly communicate with, the smooth (literally - differentiable everywhere :D ) roads...

It's funny how Japan is totally expected to have automated freeway driving first for two big reasons.
1) They are less prone to sue, so companies are more prone to release a shaky high-tech product. [can you imagine, after the Corvair, GM actually innovating?].
2) The road-lines are kept in better shape :D. If you want automated driving to happen faster, put retro-reflectors on the lane lines and road edge of freeways you drive the most.

I've put some more comments on the Race here. Check it out!

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