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You are here: > News > Oct. 10, 2005

Next Up: DARPA Grand Challenge for Real Energy Savings?

Stanford's win of the robotic vehicle competition starts the race for autonomous ground vehicles ("auto"-mobiles).  Paul Noel ponders what such a competition would do if it featured clean energy technology advancement.

by Paul Noel
Pure Energy Systems News - Exclusive

Source: Stanford Press Release, Oct. 10, 2005

Stanley, the Stanford Racing Team's entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge, finished first, earning the team a $2 million prize.  The Oct. 8 off-road race pitted 23 autonomous vehicles against each other on a 132-mile desert course that began and ended in Primm, Nevada.

PRIMM, NEVADA, USA -- The second annual (US DOD) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge has finished with several robotic vehicles completing the race. With several competing teams finishing within a few minutes of each other, this race isn’t over even when the prize is awarded.

DARPA undertook the Grand Challenge to accelerate and focus the development of these self driving vehicles because of a priority set by Congress for the US Defense Department to have 33% of its vehicles autonomous by 2015. Other DOD organizations have spent billions on developments that are proceeding slowly. DARPA has done its usual effort to stimulate rather than fund. This has worked beyond any expectations.

The real race has begun to build working autonomous ground vehicles. It will be a “Land Rush.” This is a really profound series of events.

In the field of energy this is probably the single most important development in the past century. With nearly 40% of US energy consumption involved in the transportation industry, this targets the biggest single industry where improvements can be made. The impact of making motor vehicles into true “automobiles” – a word that means “self-moving” – will be dramatically to improve the fuel efficiency of the entire transportation network, while vastly reducing the danger of a fuel supply crunch.

This event in the Mojave Desert of California promises fuel economy improvements per mile driven that will more than triple national fuel economy. This will be accomplished without improving engines or drive trains. Any improvement to the working parts of the drive for a car will simply multiply the improvements arising from the DARPA Grand Challenge.

This isn’t the first time DARPA has shaken the earth. DARPA started the Internet by its communications research efforts. With its long history of producing massive results with a few dollars, DARPA provides the model for how the US Government should best handle early-stage research and development funding.

The effect of this DARPA project will be stunning. Imagine a world in which, you can get into your car, and it will drive you there. You can send the kids to school, and pick them up, without having to go yourself. Grandma and Grandpa can go to the doctor or the market when they are blind or too weak to drive. And “nervous Nellies” can stop making long detours to avoid the more frightening traffic zones.

Imagine being able to pick up your cell phone, even if you don’t own a car, and have an AUTOmobile arrive in a few moments that will take you anywhere. Imagine a world without the hospitals full of bodies ruined by accidents. Yes, you could even “drive drunk” without causing risk to others, as there would be no further need for laws against operating a vehicle while impaired.

One might also imagine the savings from not having to send out all those fire trucks, police cars and ambulances to respond to collisions that theoretically would not occur if all cars were equipped with avoidance systems. However, it is safe to also assume that such systems would not always work perfectly. And when people come to rely on universal technology, and it fails – as it would if when the electrical grid goes down – there could be worse consequences due to the lost skills of accident avoidance when operating on their own.

Also, civil libertarians are concerned with applying satellite or other blanket guidance systems to transportation because it would inherently make possible continuous surveillance of where everyone is going. While steering/tracking technology would be useful for law enforcement, in the worst-case scenario it could also be used illegitimately. If those in power know the travel plans and progress of someone who is politically or financially inconvenient or adverse to them, they could easily harass or even assassinate the undesirable target.

That aside, the advantages of automatic transport are numerous.

Roadways will be much more efficient with few if any of those “moving parking lots” we now call rush hour. Roadway construction per car will diminish dramatically. Being able to have the vehicles travel at more efficient speeds will reduce fuel use. New cars will be able to have more efficient acceleration, gearing and do so with smaller engines. This will reduce fuel consumption by more than 3 to 1.

Add the on coming technologies of fuel reformer – fuel-cell hydrogen powered cars and the numbers promise to reduce fuel consumption and its air pollution as much as 9 to 1.

If DARPA would have the next “Grand Challenge” be in the area of energy development technologies such as sonic fusion, motionless electronic generation and a myriad of other promising technologies, we might well see as much freedom develop in the area of energy as we have seen in the Internet and may soon see in transportation.

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See also

Page posed by Sterling D. Allan Oct. 10, 2005
Last updated December 24, 2014





"It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom." // "I'd rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right." -- Albert Einstein

ADVISORY: With any technology, you take a high risk to invest significant time or money unless (1) independent testing has thoroughly corroborated the technology, (2) the group involved has intellectual rights to the technology, and (3) the group has the ability to make a success of the endeavor.
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