Feature Slides

NITRD 20th Anniversary Symposium

NITRD 20th Anniversary Symposium

The Knight Conference Center, Newseum, Washington D.C.

February 16, 2012



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Today's cars are networked computer systems on wheels: features such as antilock brakes, lane departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control, and self-­parking have gone mainstream, increasing safety and convenience.

On the horizon, though, are fully autonomous vehicles - self-driving cars.

There are many motivations:

Self-­driving cars have the promise of reducing accidents, recovering lost productivity, increasing the utilization of highways (a factor of two should be easy - highways would still be 88% empty at peak carrying capacity!), and enhancing our ability to share vehicles (by delivering them to where they are needed).

Research on autonomous vehicles goes back many decades. Real breakthroughs have occurred in the past 10 years, though - because of dramatic improvements in sensors, computation, and artificial intelligence. In 2004, the DARPA Grand Challenge offered a $1 million prize for a robot car that could successfully traverse a challenging 150-­mile course in the Mojave Desert. None of the vehicles Finished the course - the "winner," from Carnegie Mellon University, completed only Jive percent of the course. A second competition was held in 2005. That year, Jive vehicles successfully completed the course, led by a team from Stanford University. The third competition, known as the DARPA Urban Challenge, was held in 2007 - a 60-mile urban course involving various realistic traffic scenarios. Carnegie Mellon was declared the winner, collecting a $2 million prize, with Stanford Finishing second.

Researchers from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon then moved to Google, with the goal of making autonomous cars practical. To date, Google's fleet of robot Toyota Prius vehicles has traveled 200,000 accident-­free autonomous miles in every imaginable environment: on highways, on mountain roads, and in cities; day and night; good weather and bad; open and congested. Computing research - extending over many decades, much of it under NITRD sponsorship - is turning science fiction into reality. I envision a future in which our technology is available to everyone, in every car; a future without traffic accidents or congestion; a future where everyone can use a car.


Sebastian Thrun is a research professor at Stanford University, and a Google Fellow. He taught the largest online class ever taught, with 160,000 students, and he is now starting a new university, Udacity. He is also known for winning the DARPA Grand Challenge and leading the development of Google's self-driving car. He was elected into the National Academy of Engineering and the German Academy of Sciences while still in his 30s. More recently, Fast Company named him the 5th most creative person in business.