Science Foundation, Carmakers Collaborate on Autonomous Vehicles

NEWS ANALYSIS: A major part of the Washington DC Auto Show is an opportunity for auto executives and government officials to map out the future of autonomous transportation.  

Autonomous Vehicle Progress 2

WASHINGTON—The National Science Foundation is actively involved in the development of autonomous cars, and in the related field of vehicle safety, said NSF Director Dr. France A. Córdova. Córdova delivered the government keynote address at the Washington Auto Show, which has a portion devoted to public policy.

“NSF is focused on the next frontier, and is driven to support the research that will accelerate connected and automated vehicle technology,” Córdova said. She explained that NSF is exploring “Work at the Human – Technology Frontier.”

Society is on the verge of a major transformation in the workplace that is driven by machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, robots and more, Córdova said. The workplace in this technological era includes time spent driving vehicles or controlling other equipment, she said.

Artificial intelligence is at the center of the Human—Technology Frontier, according to Córdova. “NSF has supported persistent investments in AI research, hoping to enable progressive, effective methods for human-AI collaboration,” she said. “NSF funding has enabled human-technology interfaces that will enable autonomous cars to intuitively respond to the person who is really behind the wheel.

The car system will interpret and navigate their surroundings just like human drivers, improving the accuracy of pinpointing and distinguishing between objects, such as the person who walks out into traffic or the car that suddenly changes lanes. This is one area where humans and technology would work together to reduce risk.”

Córdova pointed to the Carnegie–Mellon Autonomous Vehicle, which was on display in the lobby and which was funded by a grant from NSF. Another autonomous vehicle built by Starship Technologies was operating nearby. This vehicle, which is intended for autonomous delivery in cities, is about to be deployed on the streets of Washington for food delivery.

According to the company, the Starship delivery vehicle is intended for last-mile delivery of merchandise from a store or warehouse to the customer. It’s said to be able to deliver about 40 pounds of goods per delivery. It will operate autonomously on city sidewalks, although it will require guidance from a human operator while crossing streets in Washington.

Of course, most of the interest in autonomous driving is with passenger cars, where the technology is advancing rapidly. Here in Washington, automakers were showing off their cars with the latest autonomous features, although none were being demonstrated in actual traffic— likely because of the high level of insanity among drivers in the District of Columbia.

But the car makers were quick to point out just how close to being fully autonomous their newest vehicles really are. A spokesperson at Ford, for example, took us over to a version of their nearly-autonomous Fusion Hybrid.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...