Real Computer Geeks Building Future Driverless Cars

October 30, 2010/Steve Tackett


I had the chance to hang out with Dave and Aida in Palo Alto, Calif., at Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Lab (ERL). Dave and Aida are not people. Yet, they are helping design the car of the future.
“The ERL is all about thinking out of the box and ideas that generate real results for driving safety,” Burkhard Huhnke, the lab’s director told me. Being in the heart of Silicon Valley certainly helps enlarge the box.
Dave’s real name is Digital Augmented Vehicle Experience. It’s a mock-up of the front seat of a car and a dashboard whose entire width is topped with LCD projectors, which are connected to computers. The wide screens show images of the road ahead, behind and alongside. Dave’s job is to learn how we drive, to help develop the algorithms to make steering, braking and lane changing faster and safer.
Aida’s full name is Affective Intelligent Driver Agent. This mock-up is similar to Dave, except Aida is all eyes. Her two big, cartoonish eyes on top of the dashboard are connected to sensors that watched me carefully as I make-believe drive the mock-up. Aida frowns and changes colors when she notices that my attention is drifting. And since her eyes also look out the back window, Aida also warns me if anything was coming too close — virtually that is. Eventually, Aida could help prevent us from falling asleep at the wheel.
Another group of engineers is working on improving software for what’s called “online navigation.” That’s the ability to access live Google Earth maps to avoid traffic jams and construction sites that even the most sophisticated satellite-based navigation systems can’t do. Yet.
The software also will access Google search, not just to help you find the nearest pizza joint, but also for articles and other things that interest you to download into the car’s computer and read aloud to you while you drive. The system is being launched in Europe on 2011 Audi A8 luxury models.
The thing I found the most interesting is the car that parks and valets itself. Lexus and Lincoln already have an automatic parking feature for parallel parking. The on-board computers and sensors do most of the steering and braking work with a bit of assistance from you, including turning off the ignition when the car is parked.
The VW research program is called AVP, for Autonomous Valet Parking, and it parks the car without you in it at all. The idea is this — get out of the car at the entrance to the garage and the car drives itself to the nearest empty parking space and parks itself. Seriously. I watched a demo, and my jaw dropped. It’s both bizarre and wonderful, and if you don’t talk about all the computer programming involved, it’s really simple.
Lasers on the rear fenders, similar to the back-up cameras already on many cars, follow reflective directional markers taped to the garage floor. When the lasers spot an empty space, the sensors guide the car in — nose first. Senior engineer Prasanth Jeevan told me AVP is “best suited for indoor garages where there aren’t many people walking around,” such as at a busy shopping mall with a 24-theater cinema or an airport garage crowded with pedestrians and their luggage. Until they can downsize the computers that now fill up the entire back seat and cargo area of a VW Passat wagon, it isn’t practical anyway. But the driverless car is serious business. The military is interested, and a driverless Audi TT made a respectable showing at the annual Pikes Peak auto race in September.
The ERL is operated jointly with Stanford University and Bosch, and supports all the Volkswagen brands, including Audi, Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini. — Evelyn Kanter, Motor Matters

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010