On Thursday afternoon, I went for a very short ride–maybe forty yards–in the back seat of a diesel Volkswagen Passat. Here’s why I’m writing about it on a site called Technologizer: The car had no driver. I was attending the formal dedication of the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab (VAIL) at Stanford University–complete with a ceremonial ribbon cutting by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The car in question was Junior 3, a collaborative effort between VW and Stanford researchers.
Here are clips of the autonomous auto driving a bit with nobody inside, then neatly backing into a parking space–between a pole and another vehicle–with a couple of joyriders in the back seat.
When it was my turn to ride, I got to push the button which made it all happen–which happened to be inside an iPhone app which you use to instruct the car to park or return to the other end of the driveway where the demo begins.
Look ma, no hands! Here’s the view from inside as I rode in the back (safely bucked up). It reminded me of zipping around in the spirit-steered cars inside Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
Junior 3 got its name because it’s the third-generation model of this self-driving car. The first version took second place in DARPA’s 2007 Urban Challenge competition, but had a roof-rack full of sensors to help figure out where they were going. The main evidence that Junior 3 isn’t your father’s VW, however, lives inside the rear hatch, which is bursting at the seams with electronic gear.
One of the back-seat passengers also gets a nifty computer-generated view of the trip in progress.
Oh, and there’s a reassuring Human Override button, just in case.
Junior slipped into the parking space with more precision than I could have, but it’s still very much an experiment (its ability to understand the world around it doesn’t yet extend to spotting and avoiding humans, and it would be confused by another Stanford parking area, let alone the open road). The relatively short-term vision of the Stanford and Volkswagen researchers responsible for the project is to build a car that could valet-park itself in a garage. But VAIL is also home to Junior’s sibling, an Audi TTS sedan named Shelley–which, although it lacks Junior’s cameras and sensors, is outfitted with self-correcting GPS accurate to two centimeters, allowing the vehicle to drive itself at 140mph.
That’s Shelley behind Chancellor Merkel–note the twin GPS receivers and a radio antennae which picks up supplemental navigational information.
Later this year, Shelley will race up Pikes Peak in another DARPA contest. Sadly, us guests at today’s festivities didn’t get to put her through her paces.