CES: Taking a ride in a robot car

by Peter Nowak, CBCNews.ca

There's a lot about CES to dislike – the crushing crowds, the waves upon waves of hype, the unabashed consumerism. But there are the sublime moments that almost – almost – make it all worthwhile.

I was lucky enough to experience one of those moments yesterday when I rode in the Carnegie Mellon/GM robot car. I rode in the passenger seat and was rendered thoroughly breathless as the steering wheel turned by itself while the car wheeled around its test track.

It's the sort of thing I had imagined since I was a kid, and there I was, being chauffeured around by a machine. I've often looked at technologies – Google Earth and the iPhone are recent examples – and thought "wow that's cool," but riding in a robot car... this was something truly special.

While the "Boss", as the car is known, was doing its thing, I couldn't help but imagine the possibilities. All those science-fiction movies I had watched were all suddenly far more real, more achievable. It's not often that technology can make a person truly think and reflect.

But then, a funny thing happened to disturb my reverie – the Boss, the most sophisticated vehicle on the planet, crashed. After careening around a garbage can, placed on the track as an obstacle, the vehicle lurched and ran over a set of pylons set up on the side on the side of the track. "That's never happened before!" Chris Urmson, head of the project, exclaimed.

I must be cursed, I thought.

The vehicle did redeem itself by smoothly backing up and resuming course, but still – it was enough to get me thinking of various I, Robot, Maximum Overdrive scenarios.

A GM executive later explained the flub happened because the test track had no lane markings, which the vehicle normally uses to avoid such mishaps. That made sense. My faith and wonder in the future of cars has been restored.

[Update] In response to the question, lane markings could be painted with a special type of paint that car sensors could detect through snow and ice. - pnowak