DETROIT – The current economic crisis that has battered the global auto industry has the potential to jumpstart the development of advanced technologies that will alter transportation as we know it, a panel of academics at the SAE 2009 World Congress here says.

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Sebastian Thrun, professor of computer science at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, describes the opportunities ahead by citing automotive-pioneer Henry Ford.

“‘Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.’ These words by Henry Ford are possibly more fitting than ever before,” Thrun says.

“As we look at the demise of the auto industry as we know it from yesterday, there’s a huge number of opportunities to look at technology to speed the advance of transportation in ways that have never happened before.”

Thrun predicts robotics will play a major role in the advancement of transportation over the course of the next several decades. To reinforce his prediction, he points to the success of the Defense Research Projects Agency, a U.S.-based competition challenging engineering teams to build a prototype vehicle capable of fully automated driving.

If vehicles were robotic, they would greatly reduce the number of highway deaths, cut energy consumption and lessen the amount of harmful tailpipe emissions by maintaining a steady speed and planning trips more effectively, he says.

“(Robotics) are commonplace in aviation,” Thurn says. “In bad conditions, pilots switch on the auto pilot, as the technology is more efficient. Driving today is inefficient in many ways. Today, 22% of the nation’s energy is used by cars. (Robotic) convoys would reduce energy consumption by 11%-17%.”

Robotic vehicles also would bring mobility to new groups of people, he says, noting children, the blind and the elderly would benefit from such technology.

Others on the panel offer up differing opinions on how the future of transportation, could and should look like.

John Heywood, MIT professor and transportation technology expert, says in order to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions, the industry must concentrate on reducing weight and advancing alternative powertrains.

But to meet new fuel-economy standards set forth by the world’s governments, the auto industry will have to make a “more rapid set of changes in a decade than it ever has done before,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy.”

Heywood also warns the current concentration on electric vehicles may not be the ideal choice to meet future transportation needs.

“We’re all stampeding to an electric-vehicle future, but there are a lot of problems, especially cost and infrastructure,” he says. “Electricity could help, but to assume it’s going to take over and dominate is a bold assumption at this time.”

While none of the panel members underestimates the importance of advanced technology as a way to improve transportation, some argue the needs of cities must be addressed.

“Cities have to be at the front line if we’re going to achieve a sustainable future,” says Robert Cervero, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California-Berkeley.

“More Americans live in cities than live outside, and even though cities are only 2% of the surface area of the Earth, they consume roughly three-fourths of all resources and generate roughly three-fourths of all waste and greenhouse-gas emissions.

“So cities simply are places where we have to be more resourceful and mindful of the role of not only sustainability, but what I call green urbanization.”

Cervero cites Stockholm as one example of how transit-oriented development can reduce congestion, save fuel and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Although the city boasts one of the highest vehicle-ownership rates in Europe, its populace has managed to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.

This was accomplished by building mass-transit systems in the most congested areas and restricting personal-vehicle use to weekend excursions and shopping trips, he says. “They’re more judicious and discriminate about when they drive cars.”

Cervero has been focusing most of his recent research on China, which due to its tremendous population and growth has the capability to render useless most sustainable-transportation initiatives.

“If China continues to mimic the U.S. (in transportation methods), by 2030, it would have twice as many cars as the rest of the world,” he says. “The Earth cannot sustain that.”

bpope@wardsauto.com