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Research on Race-Car Drivers Fuels Development of Robotic Cars

Stanford team's work is meant to fine-tune technology intended for self-driving passenger cars.

By Claire_Martin Jul 18, 2012 9:01AM
Image via TEDtalksDirector on YouTube.Robotic race cars were the subject of a recent lecture sponsored by the Technology, Entertainment and Design conferences (better known as TED) when Chris Gerdes, the head of Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research, discussed his department's forays into the realm of driverless racing. 

"[The autonomous car] has been one of those dreams that's always seemed about 20 years in the future," Gerdes acknowledged at the start of his talk (below).

But with Google having entered the autonomous-vehicle pool and Audi, BMW and Cadillac dipping their toes in the water as well, that time frame seems suddenly to have shrunk. And Gerdes and his team, which helped create the autonomous Audi TT that tackled the Pikes Peak Hill Climb course in 2010, continue their work to develop an autonomous race car that can hit extreme speeds without crashing. 

What's the point, you might wonder? How much fun can it be to watch driverless cars buzz around a track? Beyond the initial novelty factor, well, probably not much. But the research is intended to help fine-tune technology applied in autonomous passenger vehicles. Studying the brain waves of race-car drivers should allow researchers to perfect self-driving autos. As Gerdes puts it, "We believe that before people turn over control to an autonomous car, that autonomous car should be at least as good as the very best human drivers." 

The big takeaway from the group's research thus far: Human qualities are key to driving safely and successfully at top speeds. "We have developed a tremendous appreciation for the capabilities of human race-car drivers," Gerdes said. "It seems that these phenomenal feats that race-car drivers are performing are instinctive. They [require] very little mental workout." 

How do you replicate that in a machine? Stay tuned for an answer on that -- though we hope it won't take 20 years.

[Source: TED
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