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Friday, July 11, 2008
This is not a grid of a typical car race. This was taken at last year's DARPA Urban Challenge - a competition sponsored by the US Department of Defence to built a vehicle capable of driving autonomously in a mock city environment. Basically teams have built a vehicle that is able to drive itself without any human assistance around a designated course, mixed with real traffic. The competition attracted entries from many of US top universities with sponsorship from technology giants like Intel and Google. The USD 2 million prize money was eventually won by the team from Carnegie-Mellon University with Standford University in second place.
More videos here at DARPA Urban Challenge official website.
Though the event took place last year, and that its objective was more focus on military use (one of the challenge for the entrants was to execute simulated military supply mission) rather than civilian application, I would like to revisit this ultimate geek challenge in the light of today's transportation woes and our impending energy crisis. After all, the Internet itself is a spinoff from the US DARPA-net project to survive a nuclear fallout. Same story with the constellation of GPS satellites, they all started off as military projects.
In the movie i-Robot, Will Smith's daily ride as a self-driving Audi RSQ. The movie envisions a future where in order to solve traffic woes and to reduce traffic fatalities, the best solution is to remove the weakest link in the long chain of advance automotive technology - the idiot behind the wheel.
The idea is that an intelligent highway system populated by self-driving cars will be able to drastically cutdown traffic congestion as vehicles can now be driven at extremely high speeds, very closely with each other. A car-to-car communication protocal / network will allow instant sharing of information between multiple vehicles on changing weather, traffic and road conditions. This will enable the first vehicle to warn those behind it of impending danger, or a need to reduce speed concurrently, effectively putting an end to rear-ender accidents as all vehicles can maintain high speeds while staying very closely to each other by accelerating / braking at the same rate and time.
When such technology become feasible, fitting active and passive safety devices to vehicles can be kept to a minimum as the necessacity of such features have been made redundant by removing the only source of driving error - the idiot behind the wheel. While the industry has made great strides in energy efficient engine technology, including direct injection, common-rail diesels, continously variable transmission, cylinder deactivation, etc etc, yet the average fuel economy of cars have actually decreased despite the higher adoption rate of energy efficient technology and lightweight composite materials. Part of this reason is due to the increasingly strict crash safety legislation.
Pedestrian crash safety regulations are the main culprits behind the ungainly designs of many modern cars - just look at the front-end of the new F01 series, and...the aptly dubbed "dugong" Toyota Vios. Multiple airbag modules and the need to have a stronger cabin have all contributed to the increasing weight of modern cars. The current BMW 3-series is bigger than the E28 5 series 20 years ago. Of course, other factors also played a part - increasing demand for fancy audio and comfort features, electric-everything and the simple fact that people are generally larger today than say 30 years ago.
Imagine how light a car would be if much of its current body parts can be replaced with lightweight recycled, even organic plant derived materials, and all the heavy safety hardware can now be deleted.
These are rather laboratory stuff at the moment, but alternative powertrain development like hybrids, electric and hydrogen power can only contribute so much. After that much of it falls back on the need to reduce weight in order to improve energy efficiency. As the late Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars famously said, "To improve performance, add lightness." It is at such a point when autonomous driving vehicles will have to come into the picture. BMW's GINA concept comes to my mind now - a car that is made of cloth! See for yourself below, as explained by Chris Bangle, BMW Group's design chief..
The more technical oriented among you might be interested to watch this video below, it's a 50 minute lecture by Sebastian Trun, team member of the Stanford University team giving a lecture on the DARPA challenge to their sponsors at Google. It's a very interesting video talking about their experience from the previous DARPA challenge and the different types of computer modelling adopted, control systems, geo-location and tracking and also computer vision and image processing.
There are more great videos here at Youtube's Google channel, it's my favourite channel and there are lots great stuff to learn there.
Related link: Honda Asimo Roadshow
Posted by AutoIndustrie at 10:47 AM