Mars Rover! Mars Rover! Can Nissan come over?

Dr Maarten Sierhuis – Director of the Nissan Research Center

We have, on many occasions, jokingly referred to the ‘rocket scientists’ at Nissan who bring us this innovation launch or that automotive breakthrough. Well, many a true word is spoken in jest and none truer than the name of Dr Maarten Sierhuis, ex-NASA programmer and director of the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley.

Sierhuis brought his PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Amsterdam to NASA in 1998. At that time, he was programming simulations to predict how astronauts on Mars would work and interact with their Martian bubble-homes and (of course) their robot butlers. (Although we might be making it sound a little more awesome than it actually was.) While Sierhuis initially wrote the simulation code for this narrow purpose, it quickly became the de facto programming language for NASA’s (and later, Nissan’s) autonomous agent systems.

No, we’re not talking self-driving cars again. We’re talking self-driving cities! Sierhuis ran into the same problem everyone else does (eventually) when designing self-driving cars: no matter how smart you make the car, it’s still going to have to share the road with some very un-smart and unpredictable drivers (as well as some crazed pedestrians, even crazier cyclists and the odd goat). Sierhuis’ solution is elegant, far reaching (and perhaps a little bit Futurama): give everyone a self-driving car! Kill all the human– ahem. That is to say, eliminate the pesky biological component from the equation. Additionally, have all these self-driving cars receive constant and up-to-date information and instruction from the central traffic control robo-butler. The what, did you say?

For this, Sierhuis drew inspiration from North-Holland where an ingenious traffic management system links every traffic light to every other traffic light. Based on how busy the roads are, these traffic lights communicate among themselves and adjust their changing frequency and duration to achieve optimum traffic flow. Sierhuis created an algorithm to learn from and predict these patterns. The self-driving car should be able to automatically reroute to catch only green lights and arrive at its destination without stopping. The goal, of course, is to allow every single one of us to leave home at the exact same time in the morning and have our robo-chauffeurs drop us all off in time for work. Or, at least, have us all be late by the same margin. It might be worth it just for the benefit of being able to sleep-in on the way to work.

There is no question that Sierhuis is a visionary. His vision of the future is one where all forms of transport (planes, trains, bikes, cars, pogo-sticks, etc.) form part of one intricate system where one can, essentially, hop-on and hop-off anywhere, anywhen. A worthy and attractive goal to be sure. But whether other motor manufacturers will hop-on this (somewhat socialist) businessplan remains to be seen. It is somewhat difficult to imagine the boss giving up his morning Porsche-to-work in favour of a blue-collar, robo-cauffeur bus.

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