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GM, CMU make 5-year deal to develop autonomous cars

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By Mark Houser
Friday, June 20, 2008

A new agreement between General Motors Corp. and Carnegie Mellon University to develop cars that drive themselves has a 5-year time frame, but officials with the world's largest automaker say that's likely just the beginning.

"In order for us not to be renewing (the agreement) in five years, we really will have to have fallen apart in a way that's not going to happen," said Alan Taub, head of GM's research and development, at a campus news conference Thursday announcing the $5 million deal.

Taub said that GM expects to be selling autonomous vehicles "within the next decade, and certainly by 2020."

Besides being convenient, cars that drive themselves won't be subject to the human mistakes that cause thousands of crash deaths each year, said Nady Boules, co-director of the new lab with CMU electrical and computer engineering professor Raj Rajkumar.

Drastically fewer crashes will allow engineers to make the cars out of lighter materials, so they will be more fuel-efficient, said Boules, who heads GM's electrical and controls integration laboratory in suburban Detroit.

And because the vehicles will communicate with other vehicles to coordinate their movement, they will reduce traffic jams, he said.

"What we envision is in the 2030s, autonomous vehicles will be a popular appliance in every garage in the country, if not globally," Rajkumar said.

The joint lab will build on the success of "Boss," a CMU-modified Chevy Tahoe that won a $2 million prize in November for navigating a suburban course by itself.

Key members of the Tartan Racing team that built "Boss" will work in the new autonomous driving lab, Rajkumar said. It will employ six faculty and nine students working with GM engineers and scientists, he said.

Their research will include teaching a vehicle to plan trips, look for signs, stay in its lane, avoid obstacles and follow the rules of the road, all with a failsafe system, he said.

The automaker has collaborative laboratories at nine other universities, including five in the United States, looking at engine design, advanced materials and electronics. CMU and the University of Michigan are the only schools with more than one GM lab, Taub said.

GM will renew its contract with the other CMU lab this year, Boules said. That one, begun in 2000 and also headed by Boules and Rajkumar, is working on vehicle-to-vehicle networks and integrated computer control systems. GM has spent $11 million on it so far.

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