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January 18, 2010

Cars Without Drivers

Meet Boss--a new robotic car being programmed to get 100 percent on its driving test

Imagine a car that can drive itself, that knows the rules of the road, where to go and how to get there safely! Sound farfetched? Not for the robot wizards at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). They call their car with a brain, 'Boss.' And yes, it does drive itself.

Would you trust Boss on a busy highway? We asked some people that question, and many felt it would be too frightening to let their car be in control.

But Boss is probably a better driver than you or I. Students built it for a Pentagon competition called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. Boss plied its way through a simulated urban environment without so much as a dinged fender. It was the undisputed champion in 2007.

The team didn't stop there. Their leader, Raj Rajkumar, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and the Robotics Institute at CMU, has led them down the road to a more precise, refined navigation system, with support from corporate sponsors and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"It's constantly using its lasers, radars and cameras to see what is going on," Rajkumar says. He goes on to explain how Boss is programmed to deal with a four-way stop when another car doesn't follow the rules. "It's my turn to go, but I see somebody else coming in. It says, 'I'm stopping' just like what a human would do. It reacts instantaneously to things." The latest challenge is programming Boss to valet park. Senior engineer Jarrod Snider has been working on the program.

"The idea is that when you get to wherever you're going, you get out at the door, and the vehicle can then drive off, go into the parking lot, find a parking space, park itself and wait for you to contact it to come back and get you. So, it's a valet without the valet."

Rajkumar predicts that in as little as 10 years, this automotive marvel could replace human drivers on the road.

"The real point is safety," he explains. "Today, about 40,000 Americans die every year, thanks to automotive accidents, (and there are) about 1.5 million injuries in every year. These are just numbers in the U.S. If you look at it globally, more than a million people die every year in car accidents. Many accidents happen because of human errors. We can be drunk, we can be tired, we can be sleepy, we can be emotional; we can be distracted. We could be on the cell phone or we could be talking with passengers. We are not paying attention. If the computer is in control and sensors (are) operational all the time, there's no distraction and vehicles can actually take us to our destinations safely and while maintaining safety. It buys us a lot of time in these busy times that we live in. You can sit back, read your newspapers, catch up on email; take a nap."

Some people are skeptical and can't imagine a computer taking control of the wheel while others say 'bring it on!' They look forward to the day they don't have to worry about driving while sleepy or intoxicated, and would rather just sit back, relax and leave the driving to Boss.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Ann Kellan, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.