Robotic cars could take pressure off nation’s highways

Times Staff Writer

In Sebastian Thrun’s vision of the future, freeways will be blissful havens from the everyday stresses of life. We will unwind during swift, smooth commutes free of aggressive lane changes, defensive brake-tapping and road rage. The SigAlert will be a distant memory.

What will make this utopian autobahn possible? Robots. Robots don’t get mad; they don’t flip you the bird; they don’t cut you off out of spite; and they definitely don’t crash into one another. At least they’re not supposed to.

“There is no other way out of the current disaster that happens on U.S. highways,” says Thrun, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University and leader of the Stanford Racing Team. “There are so many aspects of society you could change if you just make cars drive themselves.”


A robotic automotive vehicle -- which, Thrun says, would “combine the convenience of a train with the convenience of a car” -- is a long way from commercial viability. But the Stanford Racing Team will put a driverless Volkswagen Passat wagon named Junior to the test in November in the 2007 Urban Challenge, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm.

Junior’s predecessor, a modified VW Touareg sport utility vehicle called Stanley, won the 2005 Grand Challenge race in the Nevada desert. This year, Junior and 52 competitors must master far more than pure speed.

The Urban Challenge will be a 60-mile test of city driving, replete with intersections, rights-of-way, stop signs, lane changes and that most annoying variable: traffic.

Thrun and Mike Montemerlo, a senior researcher at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, have equipped Junior (dubbed so in honor of Leland Stanford Jr., for whom the university is named) with an array of sensors, global positioning system devices, video cameras and laser range finders. These will tell the car where it is in relation to other cars, curbs and the myriad dangers that lurk in metropolitan streets.

State-of-the-art computers embedded in the rear of the wagon will use this information to instantaneously command Junior to brake, throttle, shift or turn.

At stake is more than the $2 million in prize money.

The defense agency says its goal is to encourage “the development of robotic-vehicle technology that will someday save the lives of American men and women on the battlefield.”

But civilian researchers see unlimited applications in everyday life.

“This is the point in time where cars are really ready to become robotic,” says Montemerlo, who unveiled Junior this year with Thrun at the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco. “We’re excited about the potential this might have for reducing the number of fatalities on the road. We’re adding more drivers all the time but we’re not adding new highways.”

Montemerlo and Thrun foresee high-occupancy vehicle lanes and eventually entire highways filled bumper-to-bumper with fast-moving robotic cars carrying commuters reading e-mails and newspapers, working on their laptops or snoozing. The driver/passenger would have the option of sliding behind the wheel after exiting the robot-only zone.

The main problem with today’s highways and byways isn’t that they are overcrowded, the Stanford engineers say, but that they’re not properly utilized. While some are blighted with clogged knots of cars lunging in spurts, others are totally empty.

The U.S. “has paved an amazing amount of surface and is not operating it very efficiently,” Thrun says. By some estimates, only 8% of the U.S. highway surface is used at peak hours, he says.

“What hasn’t been done is to make cars drive closer together in a safe way. It is absolutely feasible.”