Sometime this summer, drivers in Washington, DC may have been a lit- tle spooked to see a driver of a fast-moving tan Cadillac SRX waving both
hands, his attention on his co-passenger,
while the car remained steady in its lane,
even at the curves. Must have been spooky.
The project is the work of Ragunathan
Rajkumar, co-director of the General
Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous
Driving Collaborative Research Lab at
Carnegie Mellon University. Rajkumar was
demonstrating his team’s driverless car to
policymakers as he argued the case for a
safer world of self-driving cars.
Despite a breakdown that Yahoo! News
put down to policymaker paralysis (neat
headline: ‘Rudderless Congress breaks driverless car’), Rajkumar did make a strong
case for cars that don’t need drivers.
Championing CMU’s case was
Congressman Bill Shuster, (Pennsylvania
Republican) who also happens to be the
chairman of the House Transportation and
Infrastructure Committee. Shuster had
some idea of what to expect since he had
taken a 33-mile trip in the car last year —
from Cranberry Township to Pittsburg
International Airport. Along with them
then was Barry Schoch, secretary,
Pennsylvania’s department of transportation. After the car navigated through the
suburban Route 19 with its multiple traffic
lights, two highways (Interstates 79 and
376), and eventually the road leading to
the departure area in the airport, Shuster
declared that this was the future.
Shuster took it further in Washington,
DC, when he referred to the Jetsons, the
cartoon characters from a technologically
Rajkumar says that while his car can
drive autonomously, it does have some
trouble yet navigating heavy snow and
“Over time, the technology will improve,”
he says. “If a human can drive we can
probably figure out ways for cars to drive.
People can be unpredictable at times —
tired or sleepy or angry.”
That is the kind of thing that gets people
to drive through red lights, an error his car
is unlikely to make, he says.
“If vehicles can drive themselves we can
significantly reduce accidents, injuries,
The CMU cars “have a bunch of sensors
— things like cameras, radars all around
the car. That’s how it senses — or ‘knows’
— what’s around the car,” he says, adding
that these could be obstacles, vehicles or
people. If the car finds any of these in its
path, it will likely to try to avoid hitting
them, he says.
Rajkumar admits that, given the dilem-
ma of whether to hit a tree or a man, his
robotic car may not be as discriminating
as a human driver. He also has admitted
that it cannot understand colorful human
signals that may signal intent or emotion,
and some emergency situations. At least,
not quite yet.
Left alone the car can do most trips on
standard roads and in reasonably
unchanging conditions on its own, but,
like a well-trained subordinate, it makes
up for that by instantly ceding control to
manual input from the driver, such as a
tap on the brakes or a twist of the wheel.
Rajkumar’s team works with GM but has
a tighter budget than does Google, whose
driverless car team is led by Chris Urmson,
who was part of Rajkumar’s old CMU
“They are a big company with a huge
budget, so they can do things that other
(groups), particularly (at) universities,
cannot do,” Rajkumar says, adding that his
current team hopes to combat the finan-
cial handicap with creativity and ingenu-
“We think our car looks much better
than their car, for example,” he says, point-
ing out that the Google car had a long ugly
cylinder crowning it. By comparison, the
sensors on CMU’s tan Cadillac are hidden,
The computers running the car have
their individual functions, but can take on
the role of any of the other computers that
fail. And if it comes down to just one com-
puter, it will get the car across in a cau-
tious “limp-along” mode.
It is premature to send a child alone to
school in a driverless car, though.
Starting in 1985, Rajkumar worked in an
area called embedded real-time systems,
Rajkumar admits it was harder getting
the idea away from comfortingly restric-
tive rails and a generally isolated system
onto the more chaotic roads. For this, the
system had to be able to respond to unex-
pected changes in parameters.
His driverless car team won the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency’s
Rajkumar chills out by working on
extensions on the Linux operating system
so that it can be used in a car. Other areas
of interest are wired and wireless net-
works, and systems that bridge the gap
between computers and the physical
world, these including in smart electric
grids, health care, surgery, manufacturing,
aerospace and robotics.
Rajkumar, who grew up in Salem, Tamil
Nadu, did his undergraduate degree in
electrical engineering and communications at the PSG College of Technology in
Coimbatore in 1984. He then came to
Carnegie Mellon University to do first a
master’s in 1986, then a PhD, in 1989,
both in computer engineering.
His idea of a Jetsons-like future involves
smart grids that have no blackouts, buildings that consume zero energy, ensuring
seamless remotely managed operations of
soldiers on distant battlefields.
And, of course, as he says, “cars so smart
that nobody dies in accidents.”
that nobody dies in accidents
P Rajendran reports on Ragunathan Rajkumar’s driverless car
US Representative Bill Shuster gets a front-seat look during a demonstration in which the vehicle drove itself, negotiating traffic, changing lanes and merging during a 33-mile drive.
COUR TESY: CMU. EDU
The driverless car from the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab.
COURTES Y: CMU. EDU
COURTES Y: CMU. EDU