You’ve no doubt heard a good bit about self-driving cars of late, news delivered with a strong whiff of not if but when.
Meanwhile, Austin’s contribution to research into self-driving vehicles retired last month after years of service, competition and use as a teaching tool. That would be Marvin, the 1999 Isuzu SUV tricked out with a quarter-million dollars’ worth of hardware and software. The car is by Austin Robot Technology — so named, in part, for the nickname of one of its principals, Arturo Martin-de-Nicolas — and Martin-de-Nicolas and his brother, Juan, have an eye on a potential buyer.
“Selling it is not about the money,” Art said. “We want it to have a good home.”
Their attachment is understandable. Art, by training an electrical engineer, Juan, a mechanical engineer and a core group of maybe a dozen people — including a third brother, Jorge — spent thousands of hours writing code, installing processors, GPS and laser sensors so that the car could drive itself. When they first started, close to a decade ago, the Department of Defense had a keen interest in self-driving cars so that fewer soldiers would get injured or killed. It sponsored the DARPA Urban Challenge, in which Marvin competed twice. Once it made it into the semifinals, competing against some 200 teams. We wrote about the team’s effort in 2007, which took place in San Diego.
Art said $150,000 of the project’s cost came from the University of Texas, which leased the vehicle for use as a teaching tool, and an Isuzu dealer who wanted to remain anonymous kicked in another $100,000.
“But most of the cost was labor,” said Juan.
What was cutting edge back when they started is now common. If you have a smart phone, for instance, you probably have GPS on it. As Art points out, Mercedes is coming out with a sedan next year that will perform 16,000 functions without any need for your help, including starting, stopping, braking and steering.
“A lot of the technology we have was unknown,” Juan said.
In a happenstance moment that makes engineers geek out, DARPA randomly assigned the car the number 42, which Art points out is the answer that supercomputer Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to come up with when asked “the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything” in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
No explanation is needed for the street-legal vehicle’s license plate. It’s just “ROBOT.”
So Marvin had an impressive and productive run. Retiring the car is a natural progression: DARPA asks dreamers to do the impossible and it’s somehow made possible. After the DARPA-spurred breakthrough, the technology is being researched and refined at the university level and eventually moves into the commercial-industrial realm, Art said.
There’s a simpler reason.
“We all have busy lives,” Art said.
Now maybe the brothers will get to work on jetpacks. We’re really behind on jetpacks.