The DARPA Grand Challenge was won yesterday by Stanford (University) Racing Team. Congratulations to Stanford University! The Grand Challenge is a $2 million prize given to the autonomous vehicle that completes the 132-mile obstacle course the fastest. The vehicle must complete the course without human intervention. Stanford Racing Team's vehicle (the blue mini-SUV on the left) completed the course in a little under 7 hours, meaning that the average speed was roughly 19 miles an hour. It looks like 4 other teams will complete the course within the allotted 10 hours: Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team Too and Red Team, Gray Insurance's Gray Team (from Metairie, Louisiana), and Oshkosh Truck's Terramax. It seems like a little discussion is in order about vehicles driving themselves.
(As an aside, I'm guessing that my brother-in-law Mike makes the axles for Oshkosh Trucks. I believe that he works for ArvinMeritor, which is a co-sponsor of the TerraMax vehicle. I'm not positive of this, as the factories have changed ultimate ownership a lot recently.)
Every year, over 40,000 Americans die from auto accidents and about 3 million are injured -- some very seriously. This means that over a typical American's 80-year lifespan, at least 3.2 million people will die from auto accidents and 240 million will be injured. In short, autos impose a huge cost on society by deaths and accidents. Doing the Reaper's math, if an American's life is worth a half million dollars, then the cost each year to American society due to auto deaths alone is $20 billion.
Autos are great machines, but human nature's quirks are problematic when driving. Washingtonians spend about 35 minutes in the car each way commuting to work. As an old Gaithersburg to downtown D.C. driver, I guess that about half of that time is sitting in traffic on the freeway -- six lanes into the city, one big parking lot. This is all because our human brains insufficiently optimize driving in heavy traffic from one point to another. In addition to the fuel that is burned for no good reason, the lack of traffic flow costs about 35 minutes a day (35 each way x 2 ways / 2 for half time wasted). If the marginal value of this 35 minutes in leisure time wasted is $10 an hour, then I guess the cost for sitting in traffic is about $5.1 billion a year in the Washington area alone (35 minutes wasted a day / 60 minutes in an hour x $10 an hour x 4 million commuters x 220 workdays in a year). We could also say that the 35 minutes in driving time that is not wasted by sitting in traffic could be better spent reading the newspaper or drinking your morning coffee, but let's leave those costs aside for now.
Cars driving themselves could drastically reduce both of these problems caused by human foibles, so the question is begged of why we don't invest lots of money in making it so, as soon as possible. Even spending tens of billions of dollars each year on developing the technology is well worth the expenditure, as demonstrated by simple math. As the Grand Challenge shows, the technology to make it so is not exotic. Rather, the technology is off-the-shelf and inexpensive. In only a couple of years, and on a budget of small number millions rather than big number billions, these teams have integrated the technology to go 19 miles an hour on an obstacle course.
This seems like a no-brainer investment to me. What do you think?