In 2003, Sebastian Thrun was just a Stanford professor with a really cool idea. Having already built several prototype cars that feature autonomous driving, including one for a Smithsonian exhibit, the car enthusiast decided to go full bore with a new project that would eventually become Stanley, a robotic car built around a VW Touareg that won the DARPA Challenge in 2005 and has sensors that monitor traffic, control steering, and can self-park. (In 2007, Thrun returned with another VW model that took second place in the DARPA Challenge.)
With this success, you might wonder: what can possibly top a car that drives itself? Since 2007, Thrun has taken a sabbatical to help Google develop the Street View feature in Google Maps, which display photographic overlays to help travelers find hotspots. This year, Stanford is working on a new project involving a modified Audi TT-S that provides autonomous vehicle operation as well. But in many ways, despite the recent excitement surrounding new in-car technology by Ford and others, the days of DARPA are rapidly fading, and it almost seems like the idea of the fully robotic auto has lost momentum. Or has it?
In many ways, the dream of autonomous cars did not die at the last DARPA event. Instead, it was born anew. Several leading car companies have invested in robotic automation features and are now well on their way to providing an experience not unlike Thrun’s vision for autonomous control, where a driver simply presses a button and sits back in his seat while the car drives him home. To understand the current state of robotic features, we test drove four of today’s most advanced vehicles to find out how these options work, and how close we are to full robotic control.