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Rethinking Cars

thrunWhile manning the IEEE RAS SCV booth at Robo Development Conference, I also had the opportunity to listen to Sebastian Thrun’s keynote.  He spoke for some time on the 2 DARPA Grand Challenges, Stanley and Junior.  Toward the end, he made a call to action on juniorchanging the way we build cars to address the issues of traffic fatality and inefficiency of the current designs of the automobile.  The problems and inefficiencies include:

  1. Traffic fatality in the US costs 2% of GDP, at 42K deaths and 2.7M injuries each year.   Traffic is the leading cause of death for ages 3-33.  But the only response to vehicle safety is bigger vehicles (SUV), which is inefficient.
  2. We average 1.25hr / day in traffic.
  3. Of the 660 million cars in the world, the average utilization is 3%.  For much of the time, cars are parked.
  4. 22% of the nation’s energy is used by cars. 
  5. 30% of the energy used by each car is wasted on extra weight added for safety reasons.
  6. At peak capacity, only 8% of the highway’s capacity is used, spacing is required to ensure human drivers have enough distance between cars.  (What if fast moving cars could be paced closer together without accidents?)

Dr. Thrun suggested that the above problems could be addressed with new innovations involving more sensors and intelligence to make cars run autonomously.  He called on engineers to rethink how cars are designed and built, as well as how they are used and shared by people.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Waiming Mok

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