As the population ages, a big problem is if (and when) to take driver’s licenses away from elderly drivers, who may no longer have good enough eyesight or reflexes to safely drive a vehicle, especially in modern, suburbs, where it’s often necessary to negotiate a highway in order to buy groceries. Many cities are in the throes of deciding whether to implement light rail services, but there’s a better solution: a car that drives itself.

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is a research and development agency for the U.S. Department of Defense that is trying to perfect a self-propelled car through sponsoring competitions at universities. This research is being sponsored by the military, but the results could be put to civilian use. Last year, engineers at Cornell University succeeded in building a vehicle that drove itself, without human intervention, across 132 miles of desert, on unpaved roads and through ditches, sandy ground, standing water, rocks and boulders, narrow underpasses, construction equipment, concrete safety rails, power line towers, barbed wire fences and cattle guards. Surely highway traffic conditions couldn’t be worse than this.

But that may be the case. In November 2007, they will try to meet a new challenge: to build a car that can drive itself on city streets, obeying traffic laws, stopping at stop signs, navigating traffic circles and dealing with other vehicles. DARPA will give a team of Cornell students and faculty up to $1 million to try.

Alas, they aren’t experimenting with a sleek sports car?they have selected a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV as the basic vehicle, but “the key really is the smarts on board,” says engineer Mark Campbell. “You have a large object coming into view. How do you tell it’s a car or a bus and not a rock? How big is it, how fast is it moving, what could it possibly do when you get close?”

If these experiments succeed, self-propelled tanks could be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to reduce the threat to our soldiers from roadside bombs. If self-propelled cars could be deployed on our city streets, there would be no more threats from elderly drivers, such as the man who killed scores of people by driving through a farmer’s market in Santa Monica at high speed several years ago, because he confused the accelerator with the brake.

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