Last week, at the ITS America conference in New York City, I finally got a chance to actually go for a ride-along in “Junior” (well, a clone anyway), the fully autonomous VW Passat designed by Sebastian Thrun and his colleagues at the Stanford Racing Team, which took second place in DARPA’s Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo, who appears in Traffic, was riding in the backseat, where he generated the visualization of our drive that I’ve posted above.
The trip, down an blockaded and empty Eleventh Avenue, just outside the Javits Center, was absolutely unnerving. With a researcher from Volkswagen sitting in the driver’s seat, just in case something went wrong (it didn’t), the car drove a pre-programmed route for ten minutes, stopping at stop signs, navigating around hazards, and whisking back and forth before the assembled crowd. Its behavior — i.e., waiting for another (autonomous) car to fully clear the intersection before proceeding — was arguably better than most of what passes for driving in New York City. What if a barrel suddenly flew into the road, I wanted to know. The car would stop, and then figure out a safe way around the hazard.
Junior lurched a bit here and there, particularly upon stopping and starting, but as Montemerlo noted, the robot was optimized for an autonomous race, without passenger comfort being a priority. But it was striking how quickly I adjusted to the experience, growing perhaps a bit too comfortable with the car’s steady hand, which leads me to believe a societal switch to autonomous driving (at least in certain environments) might not be as big a psychic hurdle as we imagine. Did driving in New York City have anything to teach Junior? Montemerlo noted that given the car’s usual home is Palo Alto, and is thus not so experienced with rain, the algorithms had to optimalized for the day’s wet streets. And again, the street was closed off — put it at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel on Friday afternoon and it might implode.
The concentric bands you see around the car in the video, by the way, are the what the Velodyne High-Definition Lidar is “seeing” as it sweeps, ten times a second, in a 360 degree rotation on the roof of the Passat. You can also make out a number of pedestrians walking here and there. Note also the “target acquisition” the car makes as it approaches the fixed objects. The red bands represent things in motion. It’s hard not to summon The Terminator or some such when watching the video, seeing the omniscient power of the car to detect the array of objects in its path, able to calculate speeds and distance with unerring accuracy, while at the same time not feeling compelled to talk on a cell-phone or fix its hair in the mirror. Drivers, we’ve been warned: This is like Big Blue on wheels.
(video courtesy of Mike Montemerlo)