Stanley… the future of automobiles, today

I was browsing Wired’s site, as I do every so often and came across an interesting article about how robotics and programs like the DARPA Grand Challenge are starting to have an effect on the automotive industry and the way people drive.

Stanley is the name given to the VW Touareg that won the first successful Grand Challenge this past year. The car was retrofitted with electronics to sense where it is, what is around it, and to determine where and how to drive. It was the brain-child of Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University professor who has been working on “auto pilot” for cars for the better part of 20 years. Ironically, his Stanford-supported vehicle beat out two that were entered from Carnegie Mellon’s research team which he was once a part of. It was Thrun’s use of AI to evaluate the validity of the data coming into the main processor and to determine what data is valid and what data is merly just interferece from the vehicle bouncing around, that allowed his team’s vehicle to win the race. Interestingly, the Touareg “wanted” to go faster throughout the race, but the speed restrictions put in place by DARPA prevented it from doing a full-throttle run on all 128 miles of the off-road track.

The improvements and technology derived from running such races has brought about many improvments to the way that standard autos drive; many have distance sensors on them that will warn drivers when they are coming up on objects or when objects are coming up on them, many have camers to help the drivers “see” what’s up ahead and behind, and others are going for more cutting-edge technologies. Some newer Toyota cars will park themselves. Some of the high-end sports cars (BMW, Audi, etc…) have communications systems that allow the cars to “talk” to surrounding vehicles to aid in creating an understanding of relative positioning to aid in eliminating collisions. And many more are starting to experiment with adaptive cruise control to allow a vehicle to slow down if it is coming too close to cars that are get too close.

With the improvments discussed, it, someday, is conceivable that cars will drive themselves; though that brings up interesting issues also discussed in the article, one being that the drivers would blame faulty computers should they get into accidents. Hopefully, one of these days, my Computer Engineering background will aid me in helping this become a reality, or at least provide me with the skills needed to drive the industry farther than it is today.



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