• Dec 21, 2010
Audi reported last month that its driverless Autonomous TTS research car had completed the winding, 12.42-mile climb to Pike's Peak in 27 minutes. That's only about 10 minutes longer than it takes a human to drive the course, but I certainly didn't see it reported on the front page of the newspaper. About a month before that, however, Google let loose with a public relations effort about how its engineers had been riding around in modified Toyota Priuses that drove themselves. You would have thought the tech firm had landed a man on the moon with all the coverage it received. Indeed, anyone listening to CBS radio stations in October would have heard effusive news reports from the company's CNET news service that made it sound like the upstart Silicon Valley firm had cracked a code that has eluded Detroit, Germany and Japan for decades.

That couldn't be further from the truth. Automakers -- especially General Motors -- have been researching autonomous vehicles for decades. In the '90s they were building demonstration units capable of driving better than most humans. Although you can't go down to your local dealership and buy one, the technology developed along the way has trickled down into the cars on sale now, not to mention benefitting the military.

But if you are looking forward to the day when you can start up your car, input your destination into the navigation system, and then kick back with a cold one while you read the sports section, you will have a long wait to never. Not even Google could get its car into showrooms.

Google Computer-Driven Prius from Ben Tseitlin on Vimeo.

The History Of The Future

Driverless cars were being built long before Google was a verb. General Motors showcased autonomous cars as far back as the 1939 World's Fair. At GM's "Futurama" exhibit, the company predicted we could be zooming along the developing highway system at 100 mph by 1960. Even then, GM engineers knew that they could program the machines to be better drivers than humans.

Autonomous vehicles don't get drunk, they don't text while driving, they don't tailgate, and they don't become too enfeebled to see or react to traffic conditions. "Smart" cars riding on similarly "smart" highways that can communicate about road and traffic conditions could virtually eliminate accidents, not to mention those nerve-crunching, time-sucking traffic jams created by rubberneckers who all slow down at the same place to see a state trooper pull over a speeder.

But for all the potential benefits of such technology, there's almost zero likelihood of it getting past the lawyers. Federal law dictates that no vehicles are allowed on the road without a human "in control." State laws are similarly worded. Test cars like Google's are legal because the human aboard can override the automation. But even cars that drive themselves with humans aboard won't be commercially available any time soon, because personal liability lawyers would have a field day. Lawyers already press litigation and lawsuits on hundreds of thousands of cases involving alleged defects in vehicles that are under the control drivers. Take the driver, and the automakers' standard defense of "driver error," out of the equation and that puts 100 percent of the fault for an accident on the automaker.

"People simply will conclude, with good reason, that it would be unfair and inefficient to hold them responsible for the operation of technology without any clear way of knowing whether it works or not," says Stanford University Law Professor Kenneth Anderson. "The responsibility then moves backwards to the manufacturer, and other points of expert contact, but it is hard not to conclude that in terms of the actual operation of the vehicle, that point of accountability [to the operator] is lost."

An actual trial lawyer is more negative about the technology performing consistently in real-world conditions over time without a human operator playing an active role. "We are without a doubt the most creative and ingenious society in existence, but I think it would be much wiser to focus on safety of our human-operated automobiles," says Tab Turner, an Arkansas attorney who has won numerous settlements for his clients from auto companies.

"If we can't even successfully create safety belts that safely perform in rollovers, for instance, or child seats that actually fit in cars, how can we expect computer-operated cars to improve death rates?" he says.

Technology That Saves Lives

The only place we're likely to see real, live autonomous vehicles deployed is in a war zones. The military is keen to integrate the technology into its combat vehicles and fuel trucks. Half of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have occurred in supply convoys targeted by roadside explosives. If the trucks were traveling without drivers and guards, protected from above by helicopters and plane and monitored by satellite for counter-strike, the savings of life and materiel would be enormous.

In 2008, a Chevy Tahoe nicknamed "Boss" and engineered by a team drawn from GM, Continental Teves, Caterpillar, and Carnegie-Mellon University, beat out 85 other teams and entries in the DARPA Urban Challenge, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Pentagon created the competition to develop an autonomous fighting vehicle that will keep as many humans off the battlefield as possible. Like a next generation of "drone" fighters and intelligence gathering planes, the military wants tanks and vehicles that don't even need to be operated by remote control, let alone humans.

Outside of the military applications, the focus is also on saving lives, through developing technology that can be used in regular cars to improve their ability to help drivers. "We are not trying to replace the driver," said Professor Chris Gerdes of Stanford University, who has worked with Audi and VW on autonomous driving, and specifically the Audi TTS. "Instead we want to learn how the best drivers control the car so we can develop systems that assist our robotic driver and, eventually, you and me."

Working together, Audi, Stanford, the Volkswagen Group Electronics Research Lab and Oracle developed a distinct engineering achievement. The Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak integrates advanced algorithms, the Oracle Java Real-Time System (Java RTS), Oracle Solaris and GPS with safety and navigation systems. The key is to make all the systems work seamlessly so there is no delay between what the sophisticated sensors detect, and the resulting input to the car's controls.

Five years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that auto accidents cost the U.S. $230 billion a year. Of that, $31.7 billion was spent on health care for the victims. WHO expects auto accidents to be the No. 3 killer worldwide by 2020. Autonomous vehicles aren't going to change those horrific numbers overnight. But the technology this research has delivered might.

Collision avoidance technologies that were developed as a part of autonomous car research, like electronic stability control, are proving to save more lives than anything since the seatbelt. The next step for automakers is to integrate stability control with other systems, to develop fully "crash-proof" vehicles.

On Sale Today And Coming Soon

Cars like the Ford Taurus already offer features like park-assist, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection, and adaptive cruise control. All of these technologies have grown out of research into autonomous cars, just as NASA's space program in the 1960s brought us Velcro, satellite TV, medical imaging, ear thermometers, smoke detectors, and shock absorbing football and bicycle helmets.

The next generation of cars, like the Volvo XC60, will have technology like its standard auto-braking feature called "City Safety." This stops the car when collision with an obstacle is imminent, leading British highway safety regulators to actually call the Volvo "the car we couldn't crash." While this technology can be expensive to add, the cost is coming down as more vehicles come with it. And insurance companies are starting to help out. European insurance companies, for example, offered a 30 percent discount on premiums for the XC60. Similar discounts are surfacing in the U.S.

BMW is building the ultimate "nanny" car -- or perhaps we should call it a "nurse" machine. The technology allows the car to safely guide itself to a stop and notify the authorities if the driver suffers a heart attack, stroke or other medical emergency and can no longer drive. The Bavarian automaker launched the project with Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which wants to improve senior citizens' quality of life. BMW claims the Emergency Stop Assistant system utilizes a lot of technology already available on its cars and says it will allow seniors to feel more secure on the road. "Our primary aim is to avoid accidents caused by health-related loss of control – or at least to reduce the severity of such accidents," says Ralf Decke, project manager for Senior Smart at BMW.

Thank You Google

This brings us back to Google. The company said its seven test cars have driven over 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human help. One Google car even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. Sebastian Thrun, the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a Google engineer, leads Google's effort. In 2005, he led a team of Stanford students and faculty in designing the Stanley Robot Car, winning the second DARPA Grand Challenge by driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert.

Clearly, the company is serious about building autonomous vehicles. But more than any breakthroughs Google has generated, the attention it has called to this cutting edge of automotive technology is the real value of the company's efforts.


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