Robocar race winner: Aging drivers may get self-guided autos

But adequate levels of reliability still more than a decade away

In fact, some of the most interesting technologies developed for the race were the tools that enabled the self-guided cars to make those kinds of "smart" decisions, said Urmson, whose team worked on the Urban Challenge for the past 18 months.

"One of the neatest things was the behavioral [technology], getting the robot to act reasonably," he said. "When a person comes up to an intersection and you're not sure who should go first, at some point, one of us would go. You need to get a robot to think, 'OK, it's not officially my turn, but one of us should go, so I'm going to just go.' It needs to act reasonably, and then [be able to] recover and do something reasonable when it gets confused."

Programming that level of artificial intelligence into Boss gave Tartan Racing a leg up on the competition, Urmson added, noting that it helped the vehicle avoid another robotic car that was coming toward it -- partly in the lane that Boss was rightfully occupying.

"Apparently, the other robot was oblivious that it was in the wrong lane," Urmson said. Boss "dodged out of the way" and then stopped short after it swerved toward a concrete barrier -- seeming to think at first that it was stuck, according to Urmson.

"From a human point of view, you would have said, 'Whoa, that was close' and continued driving," he said. "Boss sat there for a minute or two and then backed up and continued driving down the road. It got a little confused and then figured out something to try, and away it went."

The car's ability to figure out that something had gone wrong and what it should do to get out of trouble is "very exciting," Urmson continued. "Obviously, we'd like to build a system that's perfect. But that's not going to happen, so you need to build a system that will recover when it makes mistakes. That was great to see."

Although it may be another 10 years or more before autonomous vehicles are actually driving people to and from the grocery store, Urmson said that radar systems and vehicle tracking technology could start to be incorporated into production vehicles right away. That, he added, could help to curb the average annual count of 43,000 deadly auto accidents that occur in the U.S. alone.

Urmson said that Tartan Racing teamed up with General Motors as part of its preparations for the Urban Challenge, and that automaker has expressed interested in the technology that the team has been developing.

"I know that [GM] is excited about the race and that they see autonomous vehicles as an important part of the future," he added. "It's such a ground-breaking demonstration for robotics. We showed the world what could be done and hopefully opened the door to taking this technology to make cars safer and save lives."

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