WASHINGTON -- Defense Department employees got a glimpse of the automobile of the future at a display of robot-driven vehicles in the Pentagon’s center courtyard.
The small four-door sedan, compact station wagon and four sport utility vehicles in the exhibit can navigate themselves without human drivers through a combination of servo-devices and radar- and laser-enabled sensors, said Anthony J. Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
DARPA, now 50 years old, is a Defense Department agency that develops new technology for military use.
“Imagine if we had convoys being driven by robots,” Tether said. Military use of autonomous vehicles would nullify the human impact of roadside bombs used by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, he explained.
The vehicles on display at the Pentagon had vied for honors during a DARPA-sponsored competition called Urban Challenge that was held Nov. 3 on a closed course at the former George Air Force Base, in Victorville, Calif. A modified 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe entered by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh won first place, earning a $2 million cash award for its Tartan Racing design team.
A computer brain that “rides” in the back of the General Motors-donated Tahoe takes the place of human thinking to drive the truck, said “Red” Whittaker, leader of the Tartan Racing team.
The much-modified, gasoline-powered truck incorporates a mix of radar- and laser-operated sensors to “see” where it is going, Whittaker said. Its multiple sensors collect data “and then the computer blends those into a complete model of what is going on,” he explained.
“This robot with computers is very good at seeing what’s occurring now and what it projects will happen in the future,” Whittaker said.
The current leading markets for robot-operated vehicles include farming and surface-mining operations, Whittaker noted. Yet, the automotive market could be the “blockbuster” of all potential markets for autonomous vehicles, he said. The U.S. government has long studied the feasibility and potential benefits of so-called “automated highways” featuring vehicles that drive themselves, he noted.
Future use of such highways would likely reduce automobile accidents and provide more efficient traffic management, Whittaker predicted.
“The automotive industry believes in the vision of driving automation,” Whittaker pointed out. “And, that’s a big change from how things were a year ago.”
Maj. John A. Moberly of the Army Staff was impressed with the robot-driven vehicles on display.
“It is amazing technology that can save lives for us in the Army,” Moberly said. “There is still definitely work to do and obstacles to overcome, but it is very promising.”
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Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - DARPA