June 11 - Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are putting the finishing touches on their version of a driverless car that, they say, lays the groundwork for computers to replace humans in the driver seat within a decade. Ben Gruber went for a ride.
At first glance this Cadillac SUV looks like any other car on the road. But unlike other cars, this one drives itself. According to Professor Raj Rajkumar and his team at Carnegie Mellon University - the Cadillac prototype is the most advanced example of driverless car technology yet produced. Rajkumar says driverless cars will one day be the norm, replacing the single biggest cause of traffic accidents on the road - human drivers. (SOUNDBITE) (English) RAJ RAJKUMAR, PROFESSOR OF ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING, CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Humans get distracted. Over 93 percent of accidents in cars happen due to human error. People are distracted, they are sleepy maybe angry, looking at something else or they may even be drunk. If we can basically take the human out of the driving equation distractions will go away and computer will not get distracted because they are not human. So, therefore we can minimize those accidents and we can slowly take those accidents towards zero." The prototype is equipped with a host of sensory technologies including lasers, cameras, and radar all of which feed their data into four onboard computers, giving the vehicle a picture of its surroundings and possible dangers in real time. It also uses GPS and wireless technology to give its autonomous navigation controls a sense of direction. UPSOUND - "It talks to the traffic lights. You see the status of the traffic lights as we go by. It is actually talking to them wirelessly." Rajkumar says the car's sense of awareness is far superior to a human drivers' - especially is dangerous conditions. (SOUNDBITE) (English) RAJ RAJKUMAR, PROFESSOR OF ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING, CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Suppose you are driving at night and the streetlights are off and the headlights start blinking and they die just to take an extreme example. We as humans can not perceive anymore but if the car is outfitted with a thermal imaging camera, a heat-sensing device it can actually see if there is a human or an animal in front of the car. The computer can actually detect that and stop the car. We humans have not perceived the obstacle but the computer has." But Rajkumar says his team is still working on proving that their driverless car can reliably handle all of the variables and complexities involved in what seems like ordinary drive down the road. He is confident that by the year 2020 - his autonomous car will be ready. But he says getting people comfortable with the idea of letting their cars drive them around may take a little longer.