You can find Robot City in a weedy 170 acres of abandoned property on the shore of Pittsburgh's Monongahela River. The facility is sheltered within a massive, rusting locomotive repair house. Amid the robot cars you will find Chris Urmson, a research scientist at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. In November his team's self-piloted robot car beat out 11 competitors to win the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Now Urmson's team is working with a five-year, $5 million grant from General Motors to transfer the robot car's autonomous driving abilities to everyday automobiles.
The modern car, he says, is not far removed from a horse-drawn buggy: The propulsion is up front and passengers sit facing forward. Take away the driver and the architecture of the car transforms for the better. With no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal, space opens up, allowing people to face any direction. With advanced artificial intelligence to avoid collisions, automobiles would also no longer need tons of protective steel and collapsible plastic. The car could become lighter and more efficient, and driving less of a hassle.