Cars That Drive Themselves

Imagine this, George Jetson: You hop in your car and, instead of driving to work, it drives you to work. Along the way, you catch up on your emails, watch videos on the dash-mounted screen, make phone calls or even do something archaic, like a crossword puzzle. You might even catch a few winks of much-needed sleep. All the while, your car drives you swiftly, silently and safely to your destination.

Think that's just a pipedream? Well, think again. That scenario is rapidly becoming not just a possibility, but a probability. And besides the obvious advantages to such new age technology, there are others as well. Safety is one.  The chance to do something real about traffic congestion is another.

So how are we going to get there? One hint, interestingly enough, comes from the world of the once much-maligned "military-industrial complex." Of course, that is the same group of disciplines that have given us such useful consumer products as satellite TV. Over the last several years the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored what it calls the "Grand Challenge," pitting unmanned, full-size vehicles against one another in a race over a very challenging course.

Volkswagen won the $2 million grand prize at the most recent 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge with a diesel-powered Touareg SUV named "Stanley."  (Naming the vehicles is optional.) Stanley defeated 22 other unmanned vehicles in a rigorous, 132-mile championship race over rough desert roads, mountain trails, dry lake beds and tunnels, using only onboard sensors and navigation equipment to guide it. Stanley performed flawlessly and achieved victory after six hours, thirty-five minutes. It never stopped to go to the bathroom, either.

Now, Volkswagen of America has announced that its Electronics Research Lab (ERL) and the Stanford University Racing Team will participate in this year's DARPA Urban Challenge on November 3. In that event an autonomously-driven diesel-powered Passat wagon, named "Junior" (in homage to Leland Stanford Jr., founder of Stanford University), will compete against a variety of other contenders on a 60-mile mock-urban course that will involve merging with traffic, crossing traffic circles and negotiating busy intersections while following traffic laws, which is more than many drivers do normally.

"We see an opportunity to further advance intelligent technologies for use in passenger vehicles of the future," said Dr. Burkhard Huhnke, director of VW's Electronics Research Laboratory. "The features developed for the Urban Challenge will ultimately benefit our customers by making driving safer and more enjoyable in today's increasingly dense traffic."

Autonomous driving is an important topic for Volkswagen Research. The last decade has seen several driver assistance systems come to market that improve vehicle handling and control in challenging driving situations. Driver-assistance systems, such as Electronic Stability control, Electronic Parking Assistance and Adaptive Cruise Control, have all been designed and implemented to make the task of driving safer, easier and more enjoyable. Each of these systems assumes some degree of vehicle control but does not take full charge of the vehicle.        

"While fully autonomous driving may be a possibility for the future, it is not Volkswagen's intent to replace the driver," said Huhnke. "By pursuing a stretch goal, such as an autonomously driven vehicle, we are able to advance certain aspects that will be of use in more conventional and current driver assistance and safety systems."

For this year's DARPA Urban Challenge, Volkswagen of America's ERL helped outfit the fuel-efficient Passat wagon TDI (diesel) with computer-controlled electromechanical power steering and electric throttle, gear shifter and parking brake. Custom mountings for the wide array of sophisticated sensors were also designed and built at ERL. Intel Core 2 Duo processors, with multiple processing units per chip, make up the car's "brains." Together with the software developed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, the car will be truly autonomous.

While it is easy to imagine the military applications of autonomous vehicles in hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also easy to envision civilian applications. Computer-controlled vehicles that are aware of not only of where they are, but of the vehicles around them through "talk-back" technology, could travel safely in much closer proximity to other vehicles than is possible with today's human-piloted cars, something which could have very positive effects on traffic congestion. And "driver-error" might largely be eliminated from accident statistics.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.