CES 2008: A Driverless SUV Gives a Tour of the Future

Car technology has always taken a back seat at the annual Consumer Electronics Show to gadgetry like big-screen TVs and the latest cell phones, but this year, automobiles are making a lot of noise to grab the gadget geek's attention.

One such technology on display is a driverless car engineered by a robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University and sponsored by General Motors.

The ultimate cruise control is being demonstrated on a closed course outside of the Las Vegas Convention Center in which the modified sport utility vehicle uses a Global Positioning System to navigate a course, cameras and radars to avoid collisions, and preprogrammed manners to allow other cars on the road to pass through stop signs before proceeding itself.

Developers hope the technology will eliminate accidents by taking driver error out of the equation. The computer relies on more than 500,000 lines of code used to create perception, planning and behavioral software to" reason" about traffic and take safe actions while driving to its destination. If only such skills could be programmed in human drivers education.

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The Chevy Tahoe's electronics were designed and implemented in order to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency 2007 Urban Challenge competition in which the vehicle navigated 60 miles of urban traffic, busy intersections and stop signs in less than six hours to win. It was the third year of the competition, which has a $2 million prize.

Chris Urmson is the director of technology for the Tartan Racing team based at Carnegie Mellon. It's comprised of faculty, students and staff with a passion for robotics and real-life applications. Although proud of the team's success, Urmson still apologizes for the rough ride the concept car gives.

"We really designed the vehicle for the competition and concentrated on going long distances at high speeds," he said but added that he is excited by the potential real-life applications that will come from the team's innovative efforts.

"The day that commercially available driverless cars are on the road may be many years away, but versions of the technologies in our vehicle can be used in the very near future to end fender benders and reduce traffic congestion for good."

General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner is expected to predict the first driverless cars will hit the road within the next 15 years during his first CES keynote address today. Expected on stage with GM's boss will be the DARPA Grand Challenge champion to illustrate the company's goal to invest millions of dollars in the near future to vehicles that can drive and brake on their own to avoid accidents.

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