Magazine article Newsweek

Turning the Car Keys over to the Car

Magazine article Newsweek

Turning the Car Keys over to the Car

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Levy

At first, Sebastian Thrun didn't feel quite comfortable behind the wheel of the modified Volkswagen Touareg R5 named Stanley. That's understandable, because he wasn't driving. Stanley was. As the Stanford University entrant in the DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) $2 million Grand Challenge, Stanley was designed to compete against 26 other driverless robot vehicles in a race through 132 miles of hostile terrain in the Mojave Desert. On test drives (the real race would be run with no passengers), Thrun had a red panic button to stop the car when Stanley failed to notice a sharp turn, or swerved toward the brush to avoid an obstacle that wasn't there. After months of software tweaking, Stanley got so good at driving that Thrun, head of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab, relaxed, even allowing himself to gab on a cell phone or consult his maps while Stanley made its way through tough desert roads. Thrun and his team began to think that on Oct. 8, Stanley might complete the DARPA challenge.

That was an achievement that many observers considered possible only in the distant future, if ever. Computers, despite success in e-commerce, data mining and chess, have behaved like utter idiots when it came to getting from point A to point B in the real world. Only a year and a half ago, in the first DARPA challenge, the robots promptly drove into rocks or bushes or simply died at the starting gate. The best effort was from a Humvee that went seven miles before steering itself into a drop-off, its front wheels grinding helplessly in the air. This year was different--and historic. There was a winner: Stanley, which completed the course in six hours and 54 minutes.

What's more, four other empty vehicles also triumphantly made it to the finish line, avoiding gullies, making tight turns, scooting through tunnels and, finally, navigating the treacherous twists of Beer Bottle Pass on the route's home stretch--all without a hint of human intervention. …

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