Researcher: Self-driving cars could save U.S. auto industry

Stanford professor says lagging innovation could be 'demise' of domestic carmakers

For the struggling U.S. auto industry to survive over the long term, Detroit must take back its technology leadership role and start developing self-driving cars, according to a Stanford University researcher.

Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science and director of the artificial intelligence laboratory at Stanford, told Computerworld that technology is revolutionizing what automobiles can do. He added that the U.S. lags behind Europe, Japan and South Korea when it comes to finding ways to use robotics to make cars safer, more energy-efficient and easier to use.

For example, Tokyo-based Nissan Motor Co. last fall showed off technology it calls the Robot Agent at the Tokyo Motor Show. Robot Agent, which sits in the dashboard of the company's Pivo 2 concept car, uses built-in cameras to read the driver's facial cues to pick up on whether he's getting tired or stressed out. The robot, speaking in English or Japanese, will nod, shake its head and even blink while it talks the driver out of a bad mood or suggests that he pull over and take a break.

On the home front, MIT researchers unveiled plans for a vehicle called the City Car, a foldable, stackable two-seater. The frame of the City Car is designed to fold in half, so the vehicles can be stacked up eight deep in one urban parking space.

"I think the U.S., as a nation, has to push these technologies harder than anybody else," said Thrun in a phone interview following his keynote address today at the RoboDevelopment Conference in Santa Clara, Calif. "For me, the American spirit is one of innovation, and I don't see this that right now coming out of Detroit. This nation should take this moment to think about why we are not the leader in automotive technology. We clearly are not."

Thrun's observations come as Congress grapples with the question of whether to bail out the ailing U.S. automakers. The country's largest car manufacturer, GM, is struggling just to survive a historically bad automobile market. And officials from Ford Motor Co., GM, Chrysler and the United Automobile Workers union are testifying before Congress today and tomorrow to explain the state of affairs in Detroit and why they need for a bailout.

Thrun said that while refocusing on technology today will not pull the U.S. auto industry out of its current financial trouble, car company engineers must immediately start looking closely at how they can better use technology, and specifically robotics.

"I think working on advanced technology like autonomous cars is the only way out for the automotive industry," said Thrun. "We have to be forward-looking. We need to make transportation more efficient. There's a good chance it will be the demise of the industry if we don't."

Robotic gadgets that assist drivers as they park, help them avoid rear-ending other vehicles and keep sleepy drivers alert are part of the evolution, he added.

Automakers need to change the way they think about the vehicles they're building, said Thrun. Enough, he says, with the giant, heavy SUVs. Figure out how robotics and other technologies can change the vehicles we're using.

Thrun pointed out that 42,000 people in the U.S. alone are killed in car accidents every year, even though 30% of an average car's weight is safety equipment. Therefore, he said, cars would be safer and use less fuel if we could build vehicles that didn't rear-end other cars, didn't weave from lane to lane on the highway, or even could drive themselves.

"We can make cars drive themselves," said Thrun. "Look at what causes accidents -- distractions. They're on the phone or looking in the glove box. We could build cars that don't veer out of their lane on the highway. That right there would cut down on 10% of accidents. You know, human pilots are only allowed to land the planes themselves during good weather. Autopilot must be used in bad weather. With robotics, we could make cars much, much safer."

After last year's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge, a 60-mile race involving self-guided vehicles that were judged on both the time it took to travel the course and how well they performed, one team leader told Computerworld that aging baby boomers may be using self-guided vehicles when they get too old to get behind the wheel themselves.

Chris Urmson, director of technology for Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team, said in an earlier interview that he wouldn't let the team's autonomous vehicle drive his wife and children around city streets just yet. But he added that he thinks we're only 10 to 20 years away from having driverless cars motoring around the roadways.

Thrun, who talks to auto company officials about how they can better use robotics, said he hopes self-driving vehicles are on the road in less than a decade. He added that the first autonomous cars won't be driving us home from restaurants at first, but they may be able to take over the controls on the highway.

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