Paul Saffo on Google’s self-driving cars

Paul speculates on the implications of the Google/Stanford research. There’s a short video of one of the Google robo-Prius cars on the highway.

(…) Why buy a car when you can subscribe to one? This is the alluring premise behind services like Zipcar and City CarShare, but thanks to an assortment of small annoyances, car sharing is a tiny industry that remains more promise than reality. Advanced telematics could be what makes car-sharing practical by adding features calculated to protect occasional drivers and the cars they share. Collision-avoidance systems would spare drivers the grief of an accident and allow for lower insurance rates. Cloud-based mapping and traffic alerts would dramatically increase the convenience of shared cars and provide better monitoring and diagnostics for the system operators. Thrun even thinks we can create a service where instead of picking up your car in a nearby parking space, the driverless car will come to you like a well-trained spaniel.

Stanford self-driving cars: roundtable interview

I just listened to the 40 minute audio podcast of a fascinating roundtable discussion. The key people are Sven Beiker, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, and futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics. There is also video of the Reporters’ Roundtable discussion.

Paul Saffo contributed several new insights on how robotic cars are likely to evolve. Already in Japan and German the twenty-somethings do not want to own a car. E.g., consider the emergence of a vastly larger market for shared cars when they become all electric robots with predicted lower insurance rates. Google might see this as a great way to create almost real-time Street View coverage by adding the camera to all these cars.

Paul also predicted that the US military will be an early adopter for convoys: human driven lead vehicle followed closely at high speed by the robot vehicles. Consider the implications for countering attacks on the convoys.

Show notes and talking points

Overview: Where are we on the road to the autonomous car?

Talk about current autonomous solutions and driver aids.

What’s in robocars for Google?

Problems yet to solve, like legal and insurance issues. Who gets the ticket? Who’s responsible for a crash?

What happens when the first robot car crashes and kills its driver or a bystander?

If the human is ultimately responsible, how are you going to keep them alert when the car is doing all the work?

Will we need new roads? New driver education?

Talk about how contests, challenges, and racing move innovation forward. See the Grand Challenge (PDF).

Talk about Pikes Peak car at Stanford. What’s the difference between it and the DARPA Challenge car, Stanley?

How will robocars come to real-world car buyers? When can we buy them?

More on Google’s self-driving car program

Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun is my hero for steering the Stanford DARPA Urban Challenge project to success. Thrun is one of the hired-guns on Google’s high intensity project (think a bit on the technologies that might enable robo-cars: the synergy of AI + mobile + localization + GIS database). I am very curious how much of the Google robo-car algorithms depend on real-time data coming down from their cloud. Nobody can match Google’s cloud for auto-driving:

(…) So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

(…)

Read more »

Google self-driving cars

Charles just sent us the link to this NYT Science article on Google’s self-driving car program. We’ve been following the Stanford-Volkswagen program — I did not know that Google was participating. Is Sebastian Thrun now a Google employee? Sebastian lead Stanford’s “Stanley” DARPA Grand Challenge project.

(…) During a half-hour drive beginning on Google’s campus 35 miles south of San Francisco last Wednesday, a Prius equipped with a variety of sensors and following a route programmed into the GPS navigation system nimbly accelerated in the entrance lane and merged into fast-moving traffic on Highway 101, the freeway through Silicon Valley.

It drove at the speed limit, which it knew because the limit for every road is included in its database, and left the freeway several exits later. The device atop the car produced a detailed map of the environment.

The car then drove in city traffic through Mountain View, stopping for lights and stop signs, as well as making announcements like “approaching a crosswalk” (to warn the human at the wheel) or “turn ahead” in a pleasant female voice. This same pleasant voice would, engineers said, alert the driver if a master control system detected anything amiss with the various sensors.

Volkwagen, Stanford: the future of autonomous vehicles

…are working together to make Driverless Cars a reality in a cooperation that includes the new VAIL facility on the Stanford campus (Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Laboratory), the opening is pictured above, and the VERL (Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto).

Volkwagen is very serious about driverless vehicle technology. The TT-S in the photo above is being prepared to enter the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb in August (yes, I said driverless!). Here is a fun VW video made to publicize the venture with Stanford.

Volkswagen and Stanford University go way back, having collaborated on two cool autonomous cars for DARPA, and now they’ve gone in together on a laboratory where researchers and students will develop technology they say will lead to safer, greener cars.

The German automaker, through Volkswagen Group of America, is investing $5.75 million in the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Laboratory to spur the creation of new automotive tech. Along with VW’s Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, VAIL gives VW the largest Silicon Valley research presence of any automaker.

“This collaboration can draw on a long-standing relationship between the Volkswagen Group and Stanford, which continues to increase the exchange between industrial and academic talent,” Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, chairman and CEO of Bentley Motors, said in a statement. (VW owns Bentley.) “The goals are to accelerate automotive-related research on campus, increase opportunities for collaboration between the VW Group and Stanford and build a global community of academic and industrial partners committed to the future of automotive research.”

VW has been working with Stanford since at least 2005, when the two collaborated on Stanley, an autonomous Touareg that won the DARPA Grand Challenge that year. Stanley is now on display at the Smithsonian. It was followed in 2007 by Junior, a Passat that was runner up in the DARPA Urban Challenge. That’s Junior in the main pic, being driven sans hands.

Volkswagen, through Audi, also has developed an autonomous TT-S, pictured below, that will attempt to conquer Pike’s Peak sometime next year. That’s an audacious goal, given the 12.42-mile course to the 14,110-foot summit features 156 turns and is among the greatest challenges in motorsports.

Burkhard Huhnke, Director of Research for Volkwagen America was the second speaker in the Cato event Driverless Cars: The Next Transportation Revolution. Huhnke described the Stanford venture, inviting us to visit the center, see the self-parking cars, etc.

And for some adrenalin, try this professional video of one of the top Ford teams climbing the peak in an 800 horsepower Ford Fiesta Rallycross:

In order to reach the summit, drivers must negotiate 12.42 miles of winding mountain road, there is imminent danger awaiting just around each one of the course’s 156 turns and while rising the 4,721 feet to the peak, drivers will have to adapt to everything from paved highways surrounded by pines to loose gravel surrounded by nothing more than wide open blue Colorado skies.

 

The vehicles will be heavily modified rally cars based on the Fiesta hatchback, and will be powered by 2.0 Liter Duratec Ford four cylinder engines, capable of putting out over 800 HP each. Ford will bring Swedish Rally Champion Andreas Eriksson and World Rally legend Marcus Grönholm to try and conquer the mountain.

This is comparatively tame back at VAIL on the Stanford campus: venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson posted this short video of VW Junior 2 self-parking at Stanford.

The DARPA Urban Grand Challenge is upon us…

The next exciting chapter in the DARPA robot-vehicle challenge begins Oct 26th [qualifier] and Nov 3 [the race assuming there are successful qualifiers]. Wikipedia has a good set of resource links and a good summary of the urban challenge:

…For 2007, DARPA introduced a new challenge, which it named the “Urban Challenge”. The Urban Challenge will take place on November 3, 2007 at the site of the now-closed George Air Force Base (currently used as Southern California Logistics Airport), in Victorville, California (Google map).[2] The course will involve a 60-mile (96 km) urban area course, to be completed in less than 6 hours. Rules will include obeying all traffic regulations while negotiating with other traffic and obstacles and merging into traffic. While the 2004 and 2005 events were more physically challenging for the vehicles, the robots operated in isolation and did not encounter other vehicles on the course. The Urban Challenge requires designers to build vehicles able to obey all traffic laws while they detect and avoid other robots on the course. This is a particular challenge for vehicle software, as vehicles must make “intelligent” decisions in real time based on the actions of other vehicles. Other than previous autonomous vehicle efforts that focused on structured situations such highway driving with little interaction between the vehicles, this competition will operate in a more cluttered urban environment and requires the cars to perform sophisticated interactions with each other, such as maintaining precedence at a 4-way stop intersection.

Stanford’s team “won” the 2005 Grand Challenge along with three other successful finishers [Terramax also finished, but 12 hrs vs. 10-hour maximum time]. NOVA did a special on that event, available as DVD or online. The 2007 Stanford effort offers a video of their new “Junior” demonstrating its competence.

You can tell these are the “good guys” by their laptop selection.

Possibly the most remarkable part of the Grand Challenge story is the success of #4 finisher Team Gray, some 37 minutes behind Stanley. This is a privately funded New Orleans insurance company, with Tulane student tech help. And they lost 3-4 weeks from an abbreviated development schedule due to Katrina [thus their vehicle's name "Kat-5"]. Team Gray has qualified for the Urban Grand Challenge as well.

…In an unheralded fourth place, though — just 37 minutes behind the winner — was an entrant from Gray Insurance, a small, family-owned casualty company in Metairie. Fourth place may not sound like any big whoop until you realize that the Gray Team finished ahead of cars from some of America’s most elite technical universities, as well as from a number of big defense contractors. In fact, theirs was one of only five vehicles that managed to even cross the finish line.

Since Mr. Gray admits to knowing virtually nothing about computers, he turned things over to Keith B. Goeller, who heads Gray’s 10-member IT department. The plan, says Mr. Goeller, was to keep his team small, look for the best off-the-shelf products, and then assemble them without being religious about anything.

…Mr. Gray says the project cost about $650,000, and was supposed to be good PR for the company, though the ongoing hurricane mop-up has kept the insurers from making hay from the accomplishment.

The moral of the story?

“It’s a beautiful thing when people are ignorant that something is impossible,” says Mr. Gray. “In fact, that’s the American way.”

But for what they call “the $2 million dollar bug” Team Gray might have beaten Stanley — their software slowed the vehicle on the flat lake bed segments due to processing overload attempting to scan the very broad possible road area.

While searching for resources on the DARPA prize I came across a YouTube video of one of the two-wheeled 2005 challengers. The video neatly illustrates how one can correct an impending bicycle fall by turning into the direction of fall. Very handy if you are caught with your foot trapped in a foot-binding — at least if your reflexes can implement the technique before it is too late…