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Autonomous Cars and Angry Robots: Inside Volkswagen’s Electronic Research Lab

California R&D center aims to tap Silicon Valley’s “out-of-the-box” thinking.

by on Aug.04, 2010

This prototype car can park itself without anyone onboard to assist.

The sedan sweeps into the parking lot and makes a beeline for an open spot, coming to a halt only briefly before backing into place behind the non-descript office complex in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Nothing unique about that, you might think – until you realize there’s no one behind the wheel of the little blue wagon.  That’s because it is a Volkswagen prototype designed to park itself autonomously.

“How nice would it be,” asks VW research engineer Dirk Langer, “if you could get the entrance of a parking lot, push a button, get out of the car and let it find a spot for itself?  When it’s time to come back, you would just call the car on your cellphone and it would be waiting for you.”

While a number of makers – including VW – already offer parking assistance systems, it’s likely to be at least a few years before a completely autonomous car comes to market.  Not that Volkswagen isn’t trying.  The maker’s Electronic Research Lab, or ERL, in Palo Alto, California, helped develop the fully autonomous car, nicknamed Stanley, which won the DARPA Challenge, several years ago.

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But teaching cars to drive on their own is only one of the goals of the ERL, which is working on projects as varied as touch screen displays that can cover the entire instrument panel, navigation systems that can provide actual images of the road you’re driving on, and a robot co-pilot who expresses pleasure – or anger – with the way you’re driving.

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