We just came upon a really great story from Wired.com. This is a "proof-of-concept" car developed by Volkswagen. The diesel Passat is lovingly known as "Junior". Here's the text from the article at Wired.com
VW says, "Look, Mom, No Hands" By Ben Mack November 21, 2008 | 12:23:11 PM
Kick back, relax and let Volkswagen be your captain with the latest technology in driver assistance systems, the autonomous driving project, a forward-looking research concept that lets the car do the driving for you.
This past week, a Volkswagen Passat equipped with the autonomous driving project and code named "Junior" was featured at the 15th World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Engineers from all over the world gathered at the Javits Convention Center in New York City to see Junior do his thing, and Wired.com got to ride shotgun.
During the demonstration, an engineer working on the project monitored from inside the car a computer screen that showed an infrared map of a sectioned off 11th Avenue. This infrared map with a little help from google maps was formulated using information gathered by laser range finders and radar sensors via software created by the Stanford University Racing Team. The lasers and radars on the top and sides of the car (hints the Ghostbusters look) had the ability to perceive the car's environment and the road ahead. Traffic signals and stop signs were adhered to while oncoming traffic, three-way intersections and sudden stops by the demonstration cars in front of the Passat were recognized. Another engineer sat in the driver seat for safety precautions, but his hands never touched the wheel or foot pedals.
It was like the Passat had become possessed!
Rest assured though, there was nothing to fear. Nobody got hurt and nobody threw up on a priest. Moreover, Big Brother is not trying to take over your car.
The autonomous driving project is being designed by VW as an optional feature. In other words, the driver at all times is in total control and has the chose of doing the driving or letting the car do the driving for them. In case of an emergency there is a big red button located on the center consul of the car. Push this button while the car is on autopilot, and the controls quickly revert to being manually powered.
Push the button, Max!!
As nifty as all this sounds, Junior still needs some fine-tuning before he can be fully functional; he is too precautious of a driver. Despite reaching speeds of up to 50mph, the car would suddenly brake whenever its sensors could not identify an object or detected the slightest movement on the road. Better safe than sorry, but as a result, the ride was not the smoothest.
Nevertheless, the engineers at VW are confident that in the future they will be able to reach the company's goal of making autonomous vehicles safer and more fun. Last year, Junior managed to finish in second place at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. The car was one of only six vehicles to complete the 60-mile urban course full of traffic circles, busy intersections and parallel parking procedures.
FYI, watching a car parallel-park all on its own is a mind-blowing experience.
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