- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The idea of a car that drives itself was viewed until recently as some high-tech nerd’s daydream or even the stuff of science fiction, but it may not be that long before a driverless car is idling at an intersection near you.

“In my estimation, by 2015 we will have at least an engineering prototype of a vehicle with reasonable capabilities to be called a completely autonomous vehicle. In about 10 years roughly, we should be able to make it commercially available,” said Raj Rajkumar, co-director of General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Collaborative Research Labs, which oversees GM’s self-driving vehicle project.

Despite some skepticism, the industry is moving quickly toward its goal, with several companies, scientists and engineers employing robotic advancements, artificial intelligence, computer science and software development in pursuing one objective: a safe and reliable self-driving vehicle on the street.

The breakthrough, researchers suggest, may not come from one inventor or manufacturer, but from the concerted efforts by the automotive industry, along with government agencies clearing the legal and regulatory hurdles.

General Motors, one of the key players in this field, has reported significant progress in recent years, according to the company’s research and development officials.

The project gained more credibility after GM’s battery-powered Chevrolet Volt, once referred to as the struggling giant’s “moonshot project,” went on the market.

Mr. Rajkumar’s team designed a self-driving sport utility vehicle called Boss — a robotized Chevrolet Tahoe — that won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s award for autonomous driving vehicles.

Alan Taub, GM vice president of global research and development, said the company aims to produce fully autonomous vehicles by the latter part of this decade. “In less-complicated environments such as the highways, it will be ready earlier,” he said.

Another promising project involves Internet search giant Google and a fleet of a half-dozen Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT. The project is the brainchild of computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, a Google fellow, director of Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-inventor of Google’s Street-View mapping service.

On his blog, Mr. Thrun recounts how Google’s driverless prototype car has traveled more than 140,000 miles from the company’s Mountain View, Calif., campus to its Santa Monica office. Along the way, the car crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and traveled over the Pacific Coast Highway and around Lake Tahoe.

“We think this is a first in robotics research,” he wrote.

Paul Hansen, writer and publisher of the Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics newsletter, said he remains skeptical of industry and consumer reception for these high-concept cars.

“I appreciate the fact that technology is at a point where you can equip a vehicle to drive autonomously,” Mr. Hansen said. “However, the auto industry is very, very conservative and it is going to take several years before it reaches the consumer.”

The march toward autonomous vehicles grew out of concerns about the number of people who die annually in vehicle accidents. Mr. Taub said the technological quest has shifted in the drive to reduce the number of fatal auto accidents. The World Health Organization, he noted, reports that at least 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road accidents worldwide.

“We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half,” said Mr. Thrun. “Were also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new ‘highway trains of tomorrow.’”

In Europe, researchers are giving a project called Safe Road Trains for the Environment, or SARTRE, a real-world test drive. The project, funded by the European Union, successfully tested its “vehicle platooning” idea in Sweden recently.

Vehicle platooning employs “a convoy of vehicles where a professional driver in a lead vehicle drives a line of other vehicles,” said Tom Robinson, SARTRE project coordinator for Ricardo UK Ltd.

The test drive was a “major milestone for the EU research effort,” he said.

“Each car measures the distance, speed and direction and adjusts to the car in front. All vehicles are totally detached and can leave the procession at any time,” he said.

As the company describes it, drivers approaching their destinations take over control of their vehicles and leave the convoy. The other vehicles in the road train close the gap and resume the convoy.

Mr. Rajkumar of the GM-Carnegie Mellon collaboration said a simple definition of a completely autonomous vehicle is one that would drive itself safely wherever humans normally drive. His team successfully tested a “virtual valet” function, involving an iPhone application, at Carnegie Mellon’s parking lot a few weeks ago.

“Imagine a situation in which you and your family visit a shopping mall,” he said. “When you reach the entrance of the mall, you take out your phone and ask your car to park itself. After you finish shopping, you can ask your car to come back to the mall entrance. The car then self-starts and comes to the entrance. You then need to change the driving mode to manual before you embark on any other trips.”

Another situation-specific feature that his team tested recently was self-driving in slow-moving traffic in which the vehicle could be switched to the autonomous mode temporarily.

“You may be able to catch up with some work, read e-mails and newspapers while the vehicle maneuvers through the traffic safely. When the slow-moving traffic clears, the vehicle beeps, and it is ready to be driven manually,” he said.

Researchers say one obstacle for these cars is getting drivers comfortable with the idea, including intermediate stages where the driver is in control but the technology keeps the car in the proper lane and even brakes when a potential collision is detected. Even so, the driver will still be in eyes-on-the-road and hands-on-the-wheel mode.

“We still need the driver in the loop as we develop the robustness of the technology,” Mr. Taub said.

GM is working on advancing features such as 360-degree situational awareness using sensors and computers, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, high-definition maps and GPS technology.

“We have been quite aggressive in developing and rolling out these safety features that would ultimately lead to first semiautonomous and then fully autonomous driving,” Mr. Taub said.

But Mr. Rajkumar pointed out some legal questions that need to be addressed.

In case of accidents, there would be questions over which party would bear the blame — the car manufacturer, the company that built the software or hardware, or the person in whose name the vehicle is registered.

“In some cases, the vehicle may be able to ‘defend itself,’ explaining the specific situations that warranted certain actions on its part that resulted in accidents,” he said.

The technological endgame of autonomous vehicles also must account for the pleasure many motorists get from slipping behind the wheel.

“We should not deprive people the joy of driving completely, and they should be able to have it whenever they want it,” Mr. Taub said.