Car drives itself

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 18 PA - A driverless robot car with an electronic brain and laser eyes that see everywhere at once has been built to demonstrate the future of road transport, it was revealed at a science conference in San Francisco.
The car, named Junior'' by scientists, looks like an ordinary blue VW Passat. But it will be capable of negotiating a simulated city environment, complete with traffic, roundabouts and one-way streets, with nobody at the wheel. Junior is being entered for the 2007 Darpa Urban Challenge, a contest designed to spur new advances in the field of robotic vehicles with a STG1 million ($A2.5 million) first prize. Robot vehicles taking part in the competition, to be held on November 3 at a Californian airfield owned by the American space agency Nasa, will have to cover 60 miles (just over 96.5 km) in six hours. The event is sponsored by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). Junior has been designed by the same team from Stanford University, California, that won the last Darpa Grand Challenge in 2005. Then, the robot vehicles had the much less daunting task of competing in the Nevada desert. The VW navigates using GPS satellite positioning, and is bristling with sensors. A spinning scanning system that combines 64 individual laser radars looks in every direction at once and has a range of 50 metres. The car also has six video cameras. Junior's brain’’ can make decisions, choose routes and read maps, and processes information from the car’s instruments at up to 200 times a second.
Professor Sebastian Thrun, one of the team leaders, told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco: In the last Grand Challenge, it didn't really matter whether an obstacle was a rock or a bush, because either way you'd just drive around it. The current challenge is to move from just sensing the environment to understanding the environment.'' The robots will not only have to avoid collisions between each other, but also master concepts that befuddle many humans, such as rights of way. Co-leader Dr Mike Montemerlo said: There are other intelligent robot drivers out in the world. They are all making decisions. Predicting what they are going to do in the future is a hard problem that is important to driving. Is it my turn at the intersection? Do I have time to get across the intersection before somebody hits me?’’
Prof Thrun said in around 20 years he expected robot cars to be commonplace on the road, and safe.
Today we can drive about 100 miles (160 km) before human assistance is necessary,'' he said. By 2010 I expect this to go up to 1,000 miles (1,600 km), and by 2020 a million miles.
By 2030 we should be able to deploy this technology on the highway, and reliability will exceed that of humans by orders of magnitude.’’
He also anticipated robots finding their way onto the battlefield, either following a human-controlled vehicle, convoy-fashion, or acting entirely independently.
When cars finally drive themselves, it will be a fundamental change for all of us,'' he said. Another team of scientists told how they had installed a robot twitcher’’ in a US wildlife park to look for the rare ivory-billed woodpecker.
The Automated Collaborative Observatory for National Environments (Acone) was specially designed to scan the skies in Brinkley, Arkansas, for birds.
The robot’s software automatically recognises when birds are present, and filters out irrelevant information.
``If the system can catch any kind of bird, that’s a success for us, but if it catches an ivory-bill, that’s a bonus’’, said Dr Dezhen Song, a member of the team from Texas A&M University at College Station.
The bird, which has a 75 cm wingspan, was feared extinct until recent sightings and fuzzy film footage from the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

``When cars finally drive themselves, it will be a fundamental change for all of us,’’ he said.
I guess we’ll finally get rid of women drivers…