Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Look Ma, No Hands! Scientists Develop Smart Car That Drives Itself to Town

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Look Ma, No Hands! Scientists Develop Smart Car That Drives Itself to Town

Article excerpt

The Pontiac minivan moves along the winding road, hugging the curves and climbing easily up the hills. It seems like an ordinary ride - but nearly the whole time, driver Dean Pomerleau's hands are off the wheel.

In what could be the future of motoring, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute are developing systems that will enable cars to "drive themselves" with software, computers, video cameras and other equipment.

The aim is to make driving safer, easier and faster.

In fact, those who are working on the Navigation Laboratory project - called Navlab - envision a day where people will be able to steer their cars onto a special lane, push a button and sit back for the rest of the ride - reading, doing a crossword puzzle or catching up on sleep.

"It's hands-off, feet-off, brains-off driving," project director Pomerleau said.

Last month, researchers took the minivan for a test drive from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Pomerleau let the system steer the van nearly the whole time from his home in Wexford, a Pittsburgh suburb, until the Washington Monument was in sight.

The vehicle averaged 57 mph over the approximately 250-mile ride. Because Pomerleau was always in control, he felt no need to notify police about his experiment.

"I was surprised at how much of the trip we could do autonomously," said Pomerleau.

Here's how the van works: a video camera mounted just below the rearview mirror "reads" the roadway, taking in information as varied as oil spots, lane markings and curbs to determine where it is.

It sends the information to a laptop computer sitting on a wooden box between the two front seats. The computer processes the data and instructs an electric motor to move the steering wheel left or right.

The system, powered by the van's cigarette lighter, can rapidly adapt to conditions at hand. For example, it can quickly learn to "read" ruts in the snow left by other vehicles instead of lane markers.

To retake control of the van, the driver has only to grab the steering wheel. …

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