In a recent Slashdot post, someone asked a question whether we will see a winner in the DARPA grand challenge in 2005? Well I want to see a winner too. Here is my winner. The best option to cross the DARPA race track is to fit a GPS navigation system, linked with some sort of mechanical device mounted on the back of a horse to pull the reins in right direction. The horse will need only directions, not precise maneuvers to clear obstacles. Yes, at the fuel stops, I will have to keep grass, and water.
Let me put my assumptions here, I think for a machine to drive a vehicle, the Urban scenario is difficult to navigate (traffic lights, moving objects) but easy to drive (tarmac), whereas rough terrain is easy to navigate (long visibility, stationary features) but difficult to drive (all wheels, traction, transmission changes, climbs).
What technologies are required to make an autonomous vehicle? after some thinking, few images flashed from the recent memory. Jeremy clarkson [on BBC] demonstrating the Mercedes' Adaptive Cruise Control on a freeway, Jeremy clarkson again, demonstrating the Terrain response of a Land Rover automatically climbing down a hill without driver's input, and a printed advertisement of a BMW travel motorcycle with cruise control. The immediate thought was, If all these technologies are available in the commercial vehicles today, then why the re-invention of wheel? But before any conclusion some research was called for. And here are the answers found.
The purpose of DARPA grand challenge is "to leverage American ingenuity to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicle technologies that can be applied to military requirements."
The last two words make all the difference. It requires the entrants to disclose their technology to the military and public, and the criteria of the race is to cross a stretch of rough terrain (very much military requirement), The output of this challenge will aid some parts of transportation industry, but not the most important, road vehicles that everyone drives.
EU is also sponsoring projects in the direction of smart vehicles and related technologies since last few years. The approach EU has taken is what impressed me to write about. There are several projects, each related to a particular function of a smart vehicle, all arranged under the 4 year EU research programs called Frameworks, Ultimately leading to (but not aimed towards) autonomous vehicles. Whereas DARPA wants to do it in the basement research mode. There is no argument about which approach is good and which is not. But it seems the EU projects, and the industry in general is producing promising results.
EU projects have reached advanced level in the area of dense traffic navigation, and traffic lights recognition. Pedestrian detection, and lane departure warning system are getting built into the production vehicles all over the world. Towing of vehicles on a freeway, is already tested for trucks.
If we look at the off road scenario, manufacturers are not behind, the Land Rover's Terrain response system is mentioned below. And if we look at the brave attempt of Berkeley team to make a motorcycle run without a rider, well BMW is selling cruise control as an option in their travel motorcycles since last few years. Everything is available with the vehicle manufacturers, but it is not put together for the lack of a commercial application for autonomous vehicles. I recently read an article (can't remember where) giving a super rant (but very much understandable) about the towing concept for trucks on the freeway, the writer was frightened at the idea of driving his little car next to a 18 wheeler without a driver.
I guess, If some X-Prize kind of competition comes up for the purpose, then auto manufacturers will rush to beat each other in innovation. Today no competition exists for the innovation in vehicle technologies. Formula 1, Nascar etc. are tightly controlled with rules to make it competitive, knowingly restricting the use of new innovations. Auto shows attract people who are interested in looking at new models of the vehicles, Technological innovation can't be demonstrated on exhibition floors. Technologies like Toyota Prius' automatic parking, gets talked about for a few days and then becomes vapor. A private competition, will be good for everybody.
As long as the question of military requirements goes, the knowledge gained from the commercial technologies, can be topped with military specifications to make the ultimate rough terrain weapon. Unless there is a step by step approach to make the autonomous vehicle we are going to see little results. We may see a winner in 2005 DARPA grand challenge, but to bring the basement research to military specifications will be quite some task (not impossible!). Industry technologies can be directly introduced in military or can easily be modified to military specs.