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Man vs Machine

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Sarah Williams

It is easy to see that American society is becoming more and more dependent on technology. Many people own smart phones, laptops, tablets, and iPods. Even our cars are part of this advancing technology. Just fifteen years ago heated seats were the newest thing and now manufacturers are putting out cars that have Bluetooth, navigation systems, and even cars that can park themselves. Imagine if this technology is taken further to the point that cars may drive themselves!

Scientists at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University, nicknamed Cars, have developed a vehicle that can do just this. The car, which they have named Shelley, is an AudiTTS that has been outfitted with sensors that read its position, speed, tire friction, and other necessary information. All of this information is then sent back to the car’s main computer and the car adjusts to its surroundings. All of this happens practically instantaneously. They are hoping to use this information in order to develop a car for domestic use that has better safety features. One such application that they are hoping to implement is a car that can take over the driving when a driver skids on a patch of ice.

In order to test Shelley, researchers decided to test it against a human driver on Thunderhill Raceway in California. They chose this track because the professor in charge of the department, Chris Gerdes, believed that the 15 turns the track has would challenge the car’s systems. Some of the turns are not very sharp and can be taken at high speeds and others are a lot more dangerous. This would give a better reading of what the designers needed to improve. The human driver was familiar with the track so he knew how best to handle his car on this dangerous road, and it basically came down to a man against a machine…kind of like a modern-day John Henry race, right?

The human completed the race just a few seconds before Shelley. The researchers were not disappointed, however. They are studying how human drivers do things that seem counter intuitive at first. One such example is that some race car drivers do not use the steering wheel to make a turn. When going at such extreme speeds, this could cause the car to flip. Instead they use the break and throttle to force the car to turn. The robotic car cannot yet use a maneuver such as this.

Instead of focusing on the technology aspect, the researchers at Cars have shifted to studying how humans drive. When a person is familiar with a car and how to handle it, they can push their car to its absolute limit. This kind of innate knowledge is difficult for scientists to program. They are not giving up though, and they are working on making this car as good as the best human drivers.