The team behind Stanley, the car that won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 2005 autonomous-vehicle race over 132 miles of Nevada desert, is at it again. By 2008, the Stanford University group will be steering its self-driving car onto the interstate.
"The next big milestone we are heading for now is proving self-driving is possible in traffic," said professor Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the university's racing-team leader. "Our goal at Stanford is to be able, within the next two years, to drive from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles with 100 percent autonomy--without any human intervention whatsoever."
The journey will take seven hours, Thrun said, and "will involve all types of traffic conditions, from urban driving to congested highways to very long traverses of interstates. We feel that this stretch of road is rich enough to show off our evolving self-driving capabilities."
In Thrun's view, the 2005 Grand Challenge "has answered the question of whether you can drive autonomously at moderate speeds in an empty desert, which is relevant in itself but bears little resemblance to real driving. So the next question is, can you drive at higher speeds in real traffic?"
Semiconductor designers, automotive engineers, and software and middleware experts all say the answer is yes, and that cars that drive themselves will be a market reality at some point in the not-too-distant future. "It is only a matter of time until consumers have self-driving cars," said Thrun.
BMW's 'active steering' technology adjusts the gear ratios based on how fast you are driving.
Sensors for such vehicles already exist, and semiconductors are coming along fast. "We see the autonomous vehicle as one of the key growth areas for automotive electronics over the next few years," said Peter Schulmeyer, director of strategy and marketing for transportation products at Freescale Semiconductor Inc. "The endpoint is the self-driving car, but what we see today is, step-by-step, the automobile is getting more and more autonomy--meaning the ability to act on its own without the driver or passenger activating any devices."
Stanford's Thrun predicts that full autonomy--not just convoy lanes on the freeway--is at least 30 years away. But between then and now will come many milestones, such as autonomous military convoys and a whole raft of convenience and safety features that will slowly bestow various degrees of autonomy onto commercial and consumer vehicles.
"Advances in automotive electronics are spurring the bulk of developments in car design," said Mike Williams, principal analyst for Gartner Dataquest's worldwide semiconductor group, who said that the worldwide automotive-semiconductor market surpassed $16.7 billion in 2005. "The safety-driven electronics innovations today will empower autonomous-vehicle capabilities tomorrow," Williams said.