Do Robotic Priuses Dream of Chevy Volts?

Pardon the headline mashup, but we're combing two automotive stories into one post here. While the two stories might not necessarily be directly related, they both shed light on different views of what the future of automobiles might look like. The first story is about the juicy tidbits General Motors (GM) has just revealed about the production-version of the Chevrolet Volt, and the second story is about a bloke who recently completed a successful test run of a self-guided, robotic Toyota Prius he built "in his spare time."

 Credit: General Motors
Chevrolet Volt
As part of GM's one-hundredth anniversary celebration today, the company finally unveiled the production version of the much-hyped and anticipated Chevy Volt. As we've previously reported, the Volt is GM's foray into the electric car market. The sleek car's electric engine has a range of up to 40 miles on a full charge of its 16 -kWh, 200-cell, lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery--making it ideal for around-town driving. (In the GM FastLane Blog, GM Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz, says, "Our statistics show that 78 percent of Americans drive 40 miles a day or less. That means that nearly 80 percent of Americans can commute powered by electricity from the grid, never using a drop of gas.") For trips longer than that, the Volt has an E85-gas-powered engine that acts as a generator for providing electric power to the car's electric drive, "while simultaneously sustaining the charge of the battery." GM claims that the Volt's electric drive has an equivalent horse power of 150 hp, and delivers a top speed of 100 mph.

"The Chevrolet Volt can be plugged either into a standard household 120v outlet or use 240v for charging. The vehicle's intelligent charging technology enables the Volt's battery to be charged in less than three hours on a 240v outlet or about eight hours on a 120v outlet. Charge times are reduced if the battery has not been fully depleted. At a cost of about 80 cents per day (10 cents per kWh) for a full charge that will deliver up to 40 miles of electric driving, GM estimates that the Volt will be less expensive to recharge than purchasing a cup of your favorite coffee. Charging the Volt about once daily will consume less electric energy annually than the average home's refrigerator and freezer units."

The Volt will be manufactured in Detroit and production is currently slated to "begin late 2010 for models in the United States." GM has also not disclosed pricing details yet. GM has disclosed, however, many of the specifications that the production Volt will have. As full-scale production is still two years out, the details are obviously subject to change:

  • Vehicle type: 5-door, front-wheel-drive sedan
  • Chassis: Independent McPherson struts front, compound crank twist axle rear, four-wheel disc brakes, full regenerative brakes to maximize energy capture, electric power-assist steering
  • Seating capacity: Four
  • Top speed: 100 mph
  • EV range, city: 40 miles (based on EPA city cycle)
  • Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
  • Length: 177 inches
  • Width: 70.8 inches
  • Height: 56.3 inches
  • Cargo volume: 10.6 cubic feet
  • Battery: Lithium-ion
  • Energy: 16-kWh
  • Electric drive unit power: 111-kW / 150 hp
  • Torque: 273 lb-ft
  • Tire and wheel size: Specially developed low rolling-resistance tires on 17-inch forged aluminum wheels

The Pribot
On one end of the spectrum, "the world's largest automaker," GM is flaunting its groundbreaking electric car, and on the opposite end is a single engineer who modified a Toyota Prius in his "spare time" to be a self-guided, robotic car. The "Pribot's" inventor is 28-year-old, Anthony Levandowski, whose hobby is robotics. The Pribot is an extension of work he did in 2004 at UC Berkeley on a DARPA Grand Challenge entrant, the self-guided, robotic motorcycle named Ghostrider.

 Credit: 510 Systems via
The Pribot uses a "combination of GPS, inertial guidance, and a pair of infrared lasers that [scan] its surroundings and [compare] its location with [a] previously built 3D map." Also helping guide the Pribot was GPS base station from Topcon, which has an accuracy of an inch or less. This base station is typically used in agriculture by "farmers aiming to do carefully aimed seeding and fertilizing." The base station has a range of 3 to 6 miles.

Levandowski, a Discovery Channel Camera crew, and a police escort, took the Pribot out for spin on September 7--or more precisely, they let the Pribot out for spin. The Pribot maneuvered its way through its 25-minute drive "without incident, save the car scraping its left side as it drove up the ramp exiting the Bay Bridge."

"Pribot's real-world test started on September 7 at Pier 7, a nondescript slice of San Francisco's often-foggy waterfront, around 7:30 a.m. The autonomous vehicle drove along the Embarcadero, took a right on Harrison Street, turned onto the bridge itself, and exited at Treasure Island." reports that Levandowski's frustration from his 40 mile commute from San Francisco to his job in Mountview at Google, was the inspiration for the Pribot:

"I commute a lot… It's really stressful... If I could be more productive and be safer, while doing that, that's (better). I'm an engineer. I like tackling hard problems and solving them... The technology for being able to improve your convenience and safety while on the freeway is just around the corner... I want to be the one to provide that." -- Anthony Levandowski

The Automotive Future
We might not have flying cars yet, but fuel-alternative vehicles and cars utilizing robotics are starting to creep into the mainstream.

Hybrids, such as the (non-robotic) Toyota Prius are very popular, and a whole bevy of eclectic cars, like the Chevy Volt, will be zipping their way to new car showrooms very soon. In fact, the "100% electric" Tesla Roadster is already in production. (Heck, a Tesla Roadster has already even been involved in a car accident.)

As far as robotics are concerned, reports that some models from Nissan, Lexus, and Volvo "offer lane departure prevention, which uses sensors to monitor lane markings, sound an audible alert when drifting is detected, and gently apply selected brakes to nudge the vehicle back into the proper lane." Levandowski predicts that aftermarket kits should be available in the next three years to control a car in "stop-and-go traffic": "It will keep you in the lane that you're in, gently steer left or steer right, follow the curves, and pace itself against the vehicle in front of you."

A combination of these innovations would give us autonomous, fuel-alternative vehicles. We might not be able to avoid traffic jams, but at least we'll feel less guilty about the energy we're wasting, and we'll be able to make far more productive use of our commuting time, such as talking on our cells phones, texting, watching TV, and putting on makeup.

Tags:  Robot, chevy, Dream, Prius, volt, LTS, ses, EA, bot, dre, AM