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6 questions for autonomous car expert

2015-07-10 11:48

GETTING THERE: Autonomous-car expert Professor Raj Rajkumar says self-driving cars could be common on roads by 2025. Image: AP / Tony Avelar

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania - Back in 1984 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed a self-driving car called The Terregator that used video cameras, sonar and laser to travel at a few centimeters a second.

Now (July 2015) the Pittsburgh school is a world leader in autonomous cars - Google's self-driving car expert had his training there. The school is doing research for General Motors and ride-share service Uber recently signed on to develop a self-driving vehicle.


Raj Rajkumar has helped to lead the school's efforts for the past 15 years as a professor of computer and electrical engineering. He also heads a spin-off company that's developing software for autonomous car vehicles.

Here are Rajkumar's answers to questions about this fast-moving technology, edited for length and clarity:

Q: How long will it be until autonomous cars are in private hands?

A: I think full automation will happen sometime in the mid- to late-2020's but until then such vehicles will be able to drive themselves on highways, through traffic jams, in limited urban situations where traffic lights are instrumented (to communicate with cars) and the vehicle will be able to park itself.

Q: Google says they will have a fully automated car ready in five years. Is that possible?

A: In terms of prototypes and demonstrations, yes. It is feasible. Technologically we've been able to do a lot of autonomous driving. We've driven autonomously in Pittsburgh, in Silicon Valley, in Nevada, in Washington, DC. Taking the driver out of the equation is, I think, very different.

Q: What are the hurdles?

A: There are technological challenges that will take some time to solve but I think they are solvable. Then there are legal considerations, liabilities. It also depends on the country. The US tends to be a highly litigious society but other countries are a little more lax so may end up adopting it - city-states such as Singapore, for example. The US is a very large country across which climate varies quite a bit. I think it will be under more limited conditions, with California, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada leading the way.

Q: What about snow obstructing cameras that read lane lines?

A: Weather will plague us for a quite some time. Heavy rain, heavy snow, heavy fog. Lighting conditions. Road conditions where the lane markers are not there or have been covered... We as humans use a lot of societal cues - If somebody has driven down the road and you see tyre marks, you know that is drivable.

That kind of intelligence takes a longer time.

Q: Once a person isn't driving, doesn't liability become a big obstacle?

A: That's exactly what people in the car industry worry about. Look at cruise control - in the early days it had a whole bunch of problems. It takes years for even a simple technology to demonstrate that it's reliable and affordable. When things go wrong they can come back and haunt you several years down the road.

Q: You're still working with Uber even though it hired away 40 researchers from your robotics centre. Why?

A: Losing 40 people is a big deal but we're able to attract new talent because that's what universities do. The fact that Uber started its advanced technology centre here is basically a validation that Pittsburgh can be the hub for robotics and automation.


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