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Ivan Kirigin's views on Robotics & Culture: future. perfect. progress.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Grand Challenge Is About Off-Road Driving

This is probably a pretty innocent mistake, but many commentators have seen the Grand Challenge only through the lens of automated civilian driving – the kind most people do every day.

Let me just point out that there is a world of difference between off-road dessert driving and freeway driving. There are also huge differences between freeway and city driving.

Dessert driving is very hard, even for humans. Driving on a rocky, dirt road that you’ve never seen before, for those used to nice, paved roads, is a challenge. In most cars, you couldn’t top 20mph, making the average speed of Stanley, 19.1 mph, seem pretty good.

Off-road, there are few mobile obstacles, many large obstacles, many obscured obstacles, very tight turns, steep inclines, no road signs, no lanes (or lane markers).

On paved roads, you have signs, smooth curves, lane markers, barriers on the road edge, reflectors in the lanes and on the side of the road. Unfortunately, you also have other drivers, and sometimes pedestrians. You are also traveling, on average, at much higher speeds. This changes something called “look-ahead distance”, i.e. how far ahead you need to look for threats to avoid them. This is actually the governing reason why high-speed roads are so smooth; even if you could, going around a corner at high speeds means you probably can’t stop by the time you see there is a reason to stop.

Despite these obvious differences, there is a much better reason to differentiate between road driving and off-road driving. The former is much further along! It has deserved comments by the main stream, but didn’t have a “race” to catalyze the media.

For example, look towards CMU’s Robotics Institute’s NavLab project. It is a decades old project. They have cars that can go freeway speeds in suitable conditions. If you really want a revolution in civilian driving, go to their page, watch some movies, and call your favorite car company, asking them to incorporate the technology.

Automated driving is also making big splashes in trucking. This should be expected, as the sensors required are more expensive, but the benefit is higher. Currently they are in the form of safety systems that monitor the driver. They can detect lane drifting, and even weariness in the driver’s eyes. This is a good example and this is a good resource.


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