In 2003, Sebastian Thrun was just a Stanford professor with a really cool idea. Having already built several prototype cars that feature autonomous driving, including one for a Smithsonian exhibit, the car enthusiast decided to go full bore with a new project that would eventually become Stanley, a robotic car built around a VW Touareg that won the DARPA Challenge in 2005 and has sensors that monitor traffic, control steering, and can self-park. (In 2007, Thrun returned with another VW model that took second place in the DARPA Challenge.)
With this success, you might wonder: what can possibly top a car that drives itself? Since 2007, Thrun has taken a sabbatical to help Google develop the Street View feature in Google Maps, which display photographic overlays to help travelers find hotspots. This year, Stanford is working on a new project involving a modified Audi TT-S that provides autonomous vehicle operation as well. But in many ways, despite the recent excitement surrounding new in-car technology by Ford and others, the days of DARPA are rapidly fading, and it almost seems like the idea of the fully robotic auto has lost momentum. Or has it?
In many ways, the dream of autonomous cars did not die at the last DARPA event. Instead, it was born anew. Several leading car companies have invested in robotic automation features and are now well on their way to providing an experience not unlike Thrun’s vision for autonomous control, where a driver simply presses a button and sits back in his seat while the car drives him home.
The Infinity EX 35: A Vision of the Future
Infiniti EX35 is a sports-sedan that drives exceptionally well. But it is advanced technology that sets it apart. The car has sensors all around it, and cameras in the in the rear-view mirrors and behind the vehicle that scan for obstructions. In some ways, the EX is more advanced than the Mercedes E-350 in that it shows how robotic automation could work: by scanning all around the vehicle. In tests, the EX would beep slightly when we approached to closely to a passing or stationary vehicle. The rear-mounted camera is also higher-resolution and more accurate than the Taurus Sho for backing up in a tight parking spot.
The EX also has exceptional lane-assist features – no wonder, since Infiniti was one of the first to invent this idea. In many conditions – including night driving, heavy traffic, partially obscured roads, and on city streets – the EX sensed the side of the road by scanning for white marker lines using front-mounted sensors. (Truth be told: we were pulled over by Las Vegas police while testing this feature and had a good laugh about it with the officer, who thought we were drunk-driving.)
Lane-assist uses a camera that scans for stark contrasts in the road and flashes an icon when you depart a lane. However, the car is smart enough to know the difference between a lane change and an inadvertent nudge – the EX waits a half-second before flashing the icon to sense a real lane departure.