This week, robotic vehicles with no human drivers will careen 60 miles through a mock town set up in the California desert.
It isn't a movie set. It's the DARPA Challenge, a race to find an automated vehicle that could serve the military in hazardous or battlefield conditions. DARPA is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Although the 20 race vehicles will carry expensive, one-of-a-kind technology, they represent the future for ordinary cars and trucks, too. That is the future of so-called sensor fusion, in which sets of sensors interact over computer networks to do more than just a single function.
"We think that's the future," says Phil Headley, chief engineer of advanced technologies for Continental Automotive Systems.
Sensors have long been used to monitor one function or another in cars. For example, a sensor in the exhaust pipe tracks emissions levels.
Now sensors are taking on more complicated tasks. In electronic stability control, for example, sensors measure a car's speed, pitch, yaw and other factors. Electronic stability control can help a car remain stable, in a high-speed turn, thus greatly improving the chances that the car will emerge from the turn safely.
"Stability control is a big thing because it's an active tool to help a poor driver become a much better driver," says Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.