Volkswagen’s Autonomous Car: Drivers Unneccesary

By  |  Friday, April 16, 2010 at 12:42 am

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.


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13 Comments For This Post

  1. David Hamilton Says:

    Fascinating. This reinforces my conviction that human control of of cars on motorways/freeways will be illegal within 15 years.

    The advantages of an all automated motorway are too great: Cars could communicate braking patterns to each other, so could run much closer together and at higher speed. Thus they could form slipstreaming groups for much improved aerodynamic efficiency (like driving close behind behind a truck, but not as insanely dangerous!).

  2. Paul Judd Says:

    David – given that we have cars on the road today that are at least 10 years old and there is no way that you can are going to get an entire population on newer models (and you would have to eliminate the classic and used car business) I don’t foresee banning human control cars anytime soon.

    Even if this device is approved on the roads, its going to be a premuim item for a long time to trickle down to anything most people can afford

  3. AndyMaslin Says:

    David and Paul both had good points. Depending on when the technology is publicly available, which also depends on when it is miniaturized so it doesn’t take up the entire trunk of a vehicle, I could see 10-15 years of adoption resulting in “autopilot” lanes similar to today’s carpool lanes. I agree that classic cars are unlikely to be fitted with these capabilities.

    There’s also the question of infrastructure. A self-driven car may ultimately be able to react to road interference (people/animals crossing the road, etc.), but additional infrastructure is needed to communicate road closings, detour routes, etc. to the cars for everything from road construction to parades. That will also take time to put in place, and won’t happen at a uniform pace across the country.

  4. Jason Says:

    WooHoo! But i think crash rates and death tolls are going to sky rocket, but anyways.. WOOHOO!

  5. tom b Says:

    Fahrvergnügen, we knew ya’ well….

  6. tom b Says:

    Sorry officer– my VCR is still blinking 12:00 at home– I SWEAR I told te robot to keep within the speed limit….

  7. John Bailo Says:

    Taken further, you should be able to get rid of the steering column entirely and have a roomy cab, maybe with the two benches facing each other.

  8. David Hamilton Says:

    Paul – My original prediction (about 5 years ago) was a 20 year timescale. I think we’re pretty much on target so far. Production versions of the technology will arrive relatively quickly – it will take most of the time for legislation to be updated, for people to get used to the idea, and, as you say, for enough older cars to fall out of circulation.

    Note that I don’t believe that automated cars will take over all roads in 15 years, just motorways, where the benefits will be greater, and they already exclude certain types of traffic.

    Jason – why do you think death tolls will increase? Road deaths currently run at epidemic proportions: A 2004 study estimates that 1.2 million people a year die and 50 million are injured globally in road accidents. (The US doesn’t get off that lightly, with
    45,800 deaths and 2.4 million injuries in 2005 alone.) Of those, “a 1985 report… found driver error, intoxication and other human factors contribute wholly or partly to about 93% of crashes”.

    Could computers really do a worse job than humans?

  9. wiperblades Says:

    Getting a ride in that Passat would be 50% cool and 50% scary.

    The thought alone of giving up control and let something else drive your car for you is just like sitting in the passenger seat – only 100 times worse.

    Personally I probably lean more towards more and more intelligent driving aids as opposed to "handing over the keys" to a robot 😉

  10. stanley Perry Says:

    I think it is going to be wonderful. To program your car to its destinaion would be a godsend. Less accidents, more efficient traffic and convenience of relaxing while on a trip. The new technology will take time to work out the kinks. it can be done, "its exciting"

  11. Truck Backup Camera Says:


    if you want to keep yourself safe while driving …you should use sensors and cameras..


  12. Darcy Clarkin Says:

    This is perfectly awesome! I just can't imagine this thing but now, almost everything seems possible. Two thumbs up for this!

  13. Used Honda Fit Says:

    If you are looking for high quality and low price used vehicles company is the one stop solution.

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