Autonomous car research advancing toward a self-driving future


In a matter of years, human-controlled cars could become hobby rather than a necessity thanks to the emergence of autonomous vehicles with increasing levels of sophistication. The loss of the steering wheel would effectively turn every commuter into a full-time passenger and could make car interiors more closely resemble computers than traditional machines.

The idea of fully autonomous self-driving cars and other vehicles has been popular for many decades in popular culture and science fiction. In the last decade, however, research from companies like Google and motor companies like Volkswagen, Tesla and Ford has shown promising progress. At Stanford, researchers across multiple programs and disciplines are conducting research in autonomous driving with the hope of increasing safety on the road and one day alleviating driving and traffic pains for commuters.

Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab features a particularly unique concept. Unlike Google’s conservatively controlled electric cars, the design lab’s project features a fully autonomous Audi TTS coupe that races time trials against a human race car driver at the Thunder Hill Raceway Park in Willows, California. Created to examine how cars perform at the brink of control, the car reaches speeds as high as 110 miles per hour as it navigates the programmed course. Vincent Laurense, a member of the autonomous racing team, said the car finished a mere one second behind the human driver in a recent test.

While autonomous vehicles promise to one day prevent accidents and increase road safety, the loss of a physical steering wheel could deal a blow to the place of driving in American culture. Barbara Karanian, an instructor in Stanford’s Mechanical Engineering Design department, cautions that traditional roles of cars, including an owner’s understanding of its quality or unique build, may be redefined or diminished without the experience of driving. Karanian teaches a course at Stanford titled “Tales to Design Cars By,” which examines the role of the automobile in defining one’s life journey.

(Editor’s note: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program. The Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) and the REVS Program at Stanford have previously funded reporting projects and conferences hosted by the Stanford Journalism Program.)

CORRECTION – Editor’s Note (6/19/2015): In this video originally published June 16, 2015, Peninsula Press misidentified one of the people interviewed on the lower-third graphic in the video — his name is Michael Nehmad. The video above has been updated with the accurate titles.