On the Road, There Will Be Robots

Would a robot car be better than a crow machine? There were two groups of people assembled this weekend that might have been qualified to answer. Those that couldn't afford the $6,000 ticket for Monterrey, California's TED, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, instead attended its newer complement, BIL, which stands for whatever you want. (Booze, Igloos, Lava?) Futurist Brad Templeton was a speaker at the latter assembly and makes the case for a world of automated automobiles.

How many years off are robot cars? Not as many as you'd think, says Templeton, who points to the success of military-sponsored contests for automated cars. Motivated by what Templeton calls relatively small prizes, teams are fielding robot vehicles that are challenged by 150 miles of curvy roads — and surviving. Moreover, he says, there was recently a contest on a city course with several vehicles that successfully stopped at red lights and thrived in the adverse conditions. "If you go one mile today," Templeton says. "You can go 30 in a year and 100 in five years."

Templeton says we'll start with safer cars that we drive ourselves. Japan already has cars that can parallel park. There are also cars that warn you if you leave your lane, cruise control that monitors distance to the next vehicle and crash resistant cars that see you slipping.

Templeton says the stakes are high. After all, car accidents every year kill 45,000 people, a number equivalent to the toll from Alzheimer's. "If I told you it was just an engineering problem to solve Alzheimer's, wouldn't you be excited?"

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