We’ve all been victims of bad drivers. Whether it’s the guy who cuts you up without any thought or consideration, or the idiot that insists on doing 50mph in the outside lane of the motorway, or even the woman doing her makeup while driving to work (yes I have really seen this happen). Human beings are easily distracted and many accidents occur as a result of negligence, plain and simple.
It’s therefore no surprise that most science fiction visions of the future involve computer controlled cars that are incapable of causing a pile up, no matter how fast they drive, leaving their occupants to get on with doing whatever they feel like, with no risk to themselves or others. Of course that driving model is still someway off, and keen drivers like myself are very thankful for that fact. However, there is significant research going into driverless vehicles, with some big names throwing their weight behind the development.
In 2005 DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) held its second Grand Challenge, which involved getting a driverless, artificially intelligent car from LA to Las Vegas across over 130 miles of desert in under ten hours. The Stanford Racing Team took the prize with a time of six hours 53 minutes.
The 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge is a far more difficult nut to crack though. This time the cars will have to negotiate an urban environment, including traffic, one way streets, rules of the road, pedestrian crossings etc. Pretty much everything that we, as drivers have to negotiate every time we get behind the wheel of a car. Of course the amount of computing power necessary to calculate all the variables involved in navigating an urban sprawl is immense.
Once again, Intel is a major sponsor of the Stanford Racing Team, with its new car called Junior, driven by a combination of Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors. Whereas the previous car (Stanley) only had worry about stationary obstacles in front of it in the desert, Junior needs to be aware of stationary and moving obstacles all around it, while also being aware of the laws of the road at all times.
Stanford has chosen not to include a separate power source in its vehicle, which means that all of the computing hardware is being powered directly from the car’s alternator, so an efficient power per watt ratio is imperative. Intel is working with the Stanford team to get the most computational performance with the least possible power draw.
Junior is equipped with sensors that relay information from a 360 degree radius and feed that information back to the car’s brain. Not only has Intel supplied the hardware for the car’s brain, but its software engineers are also developing custom software to analyse the data from the sensors and compute the best course of action.
The race will be held on 2nd November 2007, and you can be sure that we’ll keep you updated on the progress of Junior right up to the starting gate. If possible we’ll try to be there for the big day and let you know first hand whether computers will be driving our cars anytime soon.