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LAS VEGAS–On their final day at CES, the SciAm team declared victory on the imposing, sprawling conference. Sure there were cavernous showrooms, hordes of gadget-lusting revelers and rampant consumerism. But, after cutting through the plethora of touchscreens and iPod docks, getting pummeled by gaming outerwear and sitting down for a chat with the world's second richest man, it was time for a victory lap.
And who better to celebrate with than another winner? Pardon the anthropomorphizing, but the only company worthy of keeping on our last day at CES was an autonomous Chevy Tahoe nicknamed "Boss," the radar and laser-festooned victor of this past November's DARPA Urban Challenge in Victorville, Calif. (Boss, who was designed and engineered at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with help from General Motors, Continental and Caterpillar, among other corporate partners, won by completing a course that included traffic jams composed of cars driven by both humans and other robots.)
Look, mom! No hands!
It's not worth lying about this: The team was nervous when riding shotgun in Boss's cockpit with no warm body in the driver's seat. A clockwise turn of a large button on a raised platform between the front driver and passenger seats, and the car lurched forward, the steering wheel turning and the pedal engaging as though an apparition was at the wheel. (Click here to view a related video.)
The vehicle incorporates 30 to 200-meter radar and LIDAR, the latter in both wide-field and scanning (for planar views). Its main sensor sits on a perch atop the vehicle and resembles a silver coffee can with a mirror. Inside are 64 lasers, positioned at different orientations, which the car uses to formulate a 3D model of the surrounding world, says Jarrod Snider, a controls engineer at Carnegie Mellon's Robotic Institute. In the trunk are the brains of the machine, where an array composed of as many as 14 blade servers, each powered by Intel Core 2 Duo processors, processes information from cameras, radar, lasers, GPS sensors and accelerometers. (Click here for a related video.)
So what does that kind of computational firepower do when Boss, say, comes to an intersection? According to Snider, the car can identify that it's approaching a cross-street and even parse what type it's approaching (say, a four-way stop). "It uses localization sensors to know it's arrived there, then it stops at the right place," Snider explains. "Then, it uses its lasers and radars to detect and track cars -- then it determines what those cars have done. So, if another car gets there before us, it should have precedence; if the car gets there after us, we should take precedence."
The effectiveness of all this built-in logic is borne out in the test drive. Although the car pitches a bit as it lurches down the road, it is remarkably courteous and responsive. (And it's never talking on the cell phone while it's driving.) Sure enough, when it reaches an intersection, Boss makes a full and complete stop, allowing a Hummer H3 that got to the crossing first to pass through. "It's very patient and by-the-book," said Snider.
Solar charger recon
After being shown who actually is boss, the team had time to tie up some loose ends and set out to interrogate a solar charger company. Solio makes portable, hybrid energy chargers, mostly for the outdoor adventurer set. The modules can charge their lithium-ion batteries conventionally--via an outlet--or, when opened, can soak up energy from the sun through photovoltaic cells. (Click here for a related video.)