Robocar race winner: Aging drivers may get self-guided autos

But adequate levels of reliability still more than a decade away

In the not-too-distant future, aging baby boomers may have self-guided vehicles to drive them around when they get too old to get behind the wheel themselves, according to one of the leaders of the team that won DARPA's Urban Challenge race over the weekend.

Chris Urmson, director of technology for Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team, said he wouldn't let the team's so-called autonomous vehicle drive his wife and children around city streets just yet. But he added that he thinks we're only 10 to 20 years away from having driverless cars motoring around the roadways. And that could be perfect timing for all of the baby boomers who may be losing their ability to drive safely around that time.

"There's a tremendous wealth of wisdom and knowledge in the elderly," said Urmson, just a day after his team won the $2 million first prize at the Urban Challenge finals. "If they can't drive to see their family and friends, we lose that [knowledge] as a society. If they could come out of their house, get in an autonomous car and say, 'Take me to my grandson's house,' that would really be something. We're working on it. It will be a little while, but it's coming."

At this point, even Tartan Racing's winning car, called Boss, is making on-road mistakes that a production-quality car would have to be able to avoid, Urmson said. "When I get in my car, I don't want it to make a mistake," he noted. "For us to get to that level of reliability, we're maybe a decade or a little further out."

This past weekend, Urmson and the rest of the 60-member Tartan Racing team topped rivals from Stanford University and Virginia Tech during the Urban Challenge, which was held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in an effort to help spur the development of autonomous vehicles for battlefield applications.

In all, 11 robot-driven vehicles, which had been winnowed down from 35 semifinalists, raced at the abandoned George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif. The cars that competed in the 60-mile race were judged by DARPA officials on both time and how well they performed on the course.

The autonomous vehicles and their self-guidance systems had to find their way through an urban street layout that included multiple lanes, traffic circles and four-way stops, while obeying traffic laws and completing maneuvers such as merging into traffic, responding to blocked roads and passing by oncoming cars on narrow roads. To complicate matters, DARPA's event planners added about 40 human-driven cars to the mix.

"To have 11 self-driving cars out on the road was just amazing," Urmson said. "I, obviously, wanted our team to win. But at one point, I stood near the course, and I saw six robots driving around and interacting, and it was magical."

The stunt drivers whose cars mingled with the autonomous vehicles would "stop on the road and cause the robots to go around them," he said. "They added extra traffic at intersections. [DARPA officials] put an awful lot of faith in the vehicles making smart decisions, and for a large part, they did."

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