The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held their third annual robot road race this week. The race forced cars, bereft of drivers, to navigate a 60 mile urban course obeying all California traffic rules, and dodging other, human-controlled cars. The winner was the “Boss“, designed by Carnegie Mellon University and GM, an adapted Chevy Tahoe researchers described as driving like a soccer mom with someplace to go. “Aggressive- but safe,” one of them said. Only six of the 11 contestants completed the race. One got stuck when it randomly drove off the road, and at least one other had to reboot its computer along the way.
The Defense Department plans to have one third of their supply vehicles automated by 2015. Fewer support personnel means more infantry on the ground (the old adage says that there’s 100 logistics and supply people behind every foot soldier). Also, many soldiers killed in Iraq died while driving supply trucks across dangerous territory.
Anyway, I’m more interested in this technology for real world applications. Automated cars have the potential to be safer and have faster response times than people. They may be able to communicate with each other directly, via WiFi or Bluetooth, rather than relying on clumsy human techniques like turn signals. They may be able to drive much closer together at high speeds. So they may be safer, they may increase the capacity of our highways, and they may allow people who can’t drive now – the elderly, the handicapped, and children – far more freedom.
Of course, I’m a mass transit guy in the end, but I can’t help but find driverless cars damn cool.