In the television commercials at least, part of the fun of owning a car is the driving itself. Twisting and turning around country roads looks like a fun way to get from point A to point B. But for anyone who lives in or near a city -- most of the population -- the reality is usually quite different. The commercials never show the star vehicle stuck in gridlock, or the predictably unfortunate consequences of distracted driving (reading, texting, talking on the phone, applying makeup behind the wheel and so on).
In today's time-starved society, driving has become something we put up with between doing other things. So, what if our cars could drive themselves? Imagine that you got in, named your destination and your trusty, artificially intelligent transport whisked you there safely, efficiently and quickly. On the way there you could take a nap, read a book (displayed on a screen in the car, of course) or enjoy a meal using both hands.
It's not that far-fetched.
DARPA, the experimental projects branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, gave away millions in prize money for teams to develop an "autonomous ground vehicle." In other words, a vehicle that could drive itself. The 2007 contest, called the DARPA Urban Challenge, proved that a vehicle could use available sensors, GPS, and computer controls to successfully navigate roads with traffic and other obstacles, minus a human driver [source: DARPA].
Those vehicles weren't nearly as glamorous or fast as the Knight Industries Two Thousand. But like the tentative initial hops of the Wright Brothers' first airplane, they could portend changes in tomorrow's transportation that today we can barely even imagine.
For more information about important upcoming car technologies and other related topics, follow the links below.
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- Carley, Larry. "Active Safety Technology: Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning & Collision Mitigation Braking." ImportCar.com. June 16, 2009. (Nov. 19, 2009) http://www.import-car.com/Article/58867/active_safety_technology_adaptive_cruise_control_lane_ departure_warning__collision_mitigation_braking.aspx
- Carlson, Satch. "Carbon Fiber: Coming to BMW's Next City Car." BMW Car Club of America. Oct. 31, 2009. (Nov. 22, 2009) http://bmwcca.org/forum/printthread.php?t=6211
- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "DARPA Urban Challenge." (Nov. 25, 2009) http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/index.asp
- Fatality Analysis Reporting System. (Nov. 19, 2009) http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx
- Ford Motor Company. "Ford Unveils 'Intelligent' System for Plug-in Hybrids to Communicate with the Electric Grid." (Feb 2, 2010)http://www.ford.com/about-ford/news-announcements/press-releases/press-releases-detail/pr-ford-unveils-intelligent-system-30849
- Lexus. "LF-A -- Genesis of a Supercar." (Nov. 19, 2009)http://www.lexus.co.uk/range/lfa/features.aspx
- Madabout-Kitcars.com. "Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic." (Nov. 20, 2009) http://www.madabout-kitcars.com/kitcar/kb.php?aid=257
- Quain, John R. "Volvo Bumps Up Its Safety Systems." The New York Times. March 20, 2008. (Nov. 20, 2009)http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/20/volvo-bumps-up-its-safety-systems/
- Ulrich, Lawrence. "Testing Volvo's Collision Avoidance System." The New York Times. April 9, 2009. (Nov. 20, 2009)http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/09/testing-volvos-collision-avoidance-system/
- Volvocars.com. "VolvoCars receives Paul Pietsch Award 2009 for City Safety." Jan. 29, 2009. (Feb. 2, 2010)http://www.volvocars.com/intl/top/about/news-events/pages/default.aspx?itemid=28
HowStuffWorks looks at how scientists are using new technology, along with GPS and LIDAR, to map country roads so self-driving cars can use them too.