USC
About this Article
Written by: Steve Condoretti
Written on: November 4th, 2005
Tags: electrical engineering, security & defense
Thumbnail by: Illumin
About the Author
Steve Condoretti was a third-year student at the University of Southern California when he wrote this article. He majored in Computer Engineering and Computer Science and is planning on attaining an MS in Computer Science with specialization in Software Engineering. He believes that the advancement of technology, if used with caution, will provide positive results for not only all industries, but for all peoples around the world.
Stay Connected

Volume VIII Issue I > Look, No Hands!
The idea of robot-like vehicles has been around for quite some time. We have seen them in movies and read about them in science fiction books. But how close are we really? With financial backing from the government and private industry, the engineering field has made tremendous progress over the last few years. However, the impact of autonomous vehicles in society brings up several issues that could hinder the industry's progress.

Introduction

The speed with which technology has revolutionized our lives in the last 20 years is truly amazing. Consider the fact that e-mail and the Internet have all but replaced trips to the library and the post office. Technology has even given us the option not to rush home to watch our favorite television programs; today, TiVo can take care of most of our entertainment needs. If you own a new car, you might have also experienced the seat that remembers your favorite settings and adjusts itself to fit you comfortably. As my mom would ask, "What's next, a car that drives itself?" Actually, Mom, yes!
The idea of cars that can drive themselves is not a new one. The first exhibition was given in 1939 during the World;s Fair. At that time, General Motors set up a demonstration that had cars follow each other using magnetic floor strips [1]. By today's standards, it was not one of the most sophisticated presentations; however, it was a start.
Fast forward 65 years to the 2005 Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, a 132 mile "unmanned" race. Only five cars crossed the finish line, the fastest car completing the race in 6 hours and 53 minutes with an average speed of 19.1 mph [2]. Behind the wheel of the winning car were thousands of lines of programming code. The vehicle was driven by sophisticated software packages, mounted on the dashboard of the car, that made the decisions that you and I have to make every time we get into a car (where to turn, when to stop, etc.).

Let's do it for our country

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge challenged various teams of students, engineers, designers, programmers and private sector partners to construct a vehicle that would cross the finish line with no human intervention. Imagine the potential benefits of cars that drive themselves: - More productive morning commutes - Fewer accidents - Better visibility during bad weather - All or most terrain navigation If you can't imagine it yet, the United States government already has. In fact, the goal of DARPA is the development of unmanned vehicles to be used in the military. The Challenge and the resulting transformation of ordinary cars into robot-like vehicles capable of driving themselves is as much the result of ingenuity and technology as it is the result of a congressional mandate to make one-third of military land vehicles autonomous by 2015 [2].
The government has two major objectives for their autonomous car program. The first goal is to have follower convoys in military war zones. In addition to the efforts by DARPA, Robotics Technology Integration teams from the US Army along with the Development Engineer Center have been working on the Robotic Follower Advance Technology Demonstrator project [3]. This Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UVGC) program would have the ability to transfer information from a manned vehicle to an unmanned vehicle that follows closely behind. The download of information from the first car would provide the robot vehicle a path that avoids areas that could impede or confuse its navigation system [4]. Soldiers would continue to ride in follower vehicles but they would have time to sleep, eat or keep watch on the area. Steering the vehicle on the road and towards its intended destination would no longer be the responsibility of the crew [3].
The second goal of the UVGC program is the development of a completely self-sufficient vehicle. The uses for these advanced robot-like vehicles would be numerous when you consider war areas that are often dangerous to soldiers. The Army hopes to create all-purpose combat vehicles that would survey battlefields, sniff for land mines, or run supply missions without risking the lives of soldiers (Noguchi). Over time the program also hopes to build computer systems that have the ability to "learn" from mistakes and update their own code in order to avoid making the same errors twice [4].