Tech Check

Driverless Cars: Not So Far Down The Road?

Carnegie Mellon's Robocar

I don't think our generation will ever get used to seeing an SUV, a pick-up, a big truck or even a Prius, driving down the road without a driver at the wheel.

I know that as I watched car after car trek down the course at the big DARPA autonomous car challenge at an abandoned Air Force base in Victorville, California last weekend, I felt weird. Each time.

But the cool factor was also there. Big time. Eleven teams ended up competing in the day-long event, along a 60-mile course. And while Carnegie Mellon's Robocar, beat out Stanford University's favored "Junior," to win the $2 million prize, the bigger themes of what this technology can do, and what the technology WILL do, far outshined the competition itself.

The day started early with hundreds of media and thousands of robot fans lining up in the dark. It was chilly. But the cold air quickly gave way to an air of anticipation.

"This technology will affect all of us, very soon. 42-thousand people die every year in traffic accidents. It's the number 1 cause of death age 3 to 33. Huge. We don't use our highway very efficiently," Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford's racing team told me. These cars, decked out with dozens of computers, sensors, lasers, radar and cameras are the kinds of vehicles to turn all of that around.

But the competition aside, the technology and its promise seemed to get everyone excited. Even the spokeswoman for DARPA Jan Walker seemed awed by the spectacle, saying "Seeing a vehicle pull up, stop at a stop sign, watch the traffic coming in either direction, make a decision if there is enough space for it to make a left turn, and there is no one in the driver seat, and that is amazing!"

And while many of these teams come from colleges, almost all of them are sponsored by the biggest names in technology: Intel, Cisco, Netgear, Google, Trimble, Bosch and dozens of others. All of these companies cooperating, and all of them relying on new software to bring all those technologies together. Turning engineering theory into a new kind of reality.

I sat down with Larry Burns, the top research executive at General Motors . He sponsored the winning team, and says his company is extremely interested in the kinds of applications these cars can bring to his company.

He described to me different scenarios his company is working on, based on these kinds of technologies at the DARPA Challenge: One is called the Virtual Valet, where after you drive your car to work, you get out, and send the car, on its own, to park itself in the nearest parking space--something the car will be aware of because it will be linked to a wireless network that will direct it to where it needs to go.

And since, as Burns says, "Estimates are 20% of the miles driven in Manhattan are people looking for a place to park," a simple application like this could also be extremely good for the environment.

Traffic jams, inefficient commutes, could all be eliminated by these technologies; not to mention so many injuries and deaths. Something that weighs on the minds of the engineers working on these cars.

Second place for Stanford; First place for consumers and the environment.

Questions?  Comments?