Three years ago, I met a very unusual Volkswagen Passat at Stanford University. Junior, as they call it, is an autonomous vehicle, which means the car can drive itself. Using laser technology called LIDAR, the car reads its surrounding and makes decisions about where and how to drive. Sitting in the backseat for one of its test drives, I found it truly bizarre to see the steering wheel move completely on its own (for more, check out his radio story).

The car was developed by Stanford University for the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007, a road race designed for autonomous cars. The course was complete with stop signs and obstacles that the cars had to avoid. Junior won second place. And there’s no doubt that the cars developed for the race broke new ground. Stanley, Junior’s predecessor, is now featured in the Smithsonian Museum.

Now, another autonomous car has driven itself onto the scene – Shelley. Developed by the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, Shelley is an Audi TTS that is designed to be an autonomous race car. Shelley doesn’t use lasers to see the terrain. Instead, the car uses differential GPS to find its position on an internal map.

Professor Chris Gerdes says the car uses techniques that race car drivers use. It takes sharp turns at high speeds, calculating the right times to brake and accelerate.  We hung out recently at one of Shelley’s test runs at the Santa Clara County Fairground.  From the outside, it didn’t seem like Shelly was doing anything special. Riding in the car, though, you can tell it’s taking the turns faster than most rational drivers would.

Aside from being a neat trick, the research that has gone into Shelley could be important in the future. Gerdes says it could be built into safety systems for cars that could assist drivers in tough situations.

Later this month, Gerdes is planning on taking Shelley up Pike’s Peak, a climbing race course in Colorado. With tight turns, sheer drops and dirt roads, it will certainly be a test of the car’s systems.

You may watch the segment below, or view a bigger version of Driverless Cars video story online.


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Producer’s Notes: Driverless Cars 6 September,2011

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