‘Delft has one of the strongest robotics groups in Europe’

Sebastian Thrun, the man who built the first driverless car that actually impressed onlookers, received an honorary doctorate at TUD on January 8th. ‘From today’s perspective everything is easy.’

Thrun at the ceremony (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)
Thrun at the ceremony (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

As a German ,Sebastian Thrun surely knows how to wear a white tie, an ancient formal dress under pressure of newcomers like the tuxedo and smoking, but still holding out at such occasions as the Nobel Prize and Delft doctoral ceremonies. The laureate at the dies natalis earlier this month charmed everybody by not only knowing what to wear, but also what to say.

'Delft has one of the strongest robotics groups in Europe, perhaps even in the world, so naturally I knew the work that is done here', Thrun stressed, speaking to Delta as the crowd descended on him to congratulate him after the ceremony. 'There was no personal connection, however. But now there is.'

Thrun spent the greater part of his professional life in robotics, making headlines in 2005, when his team won the Grand Challenge put forth by the American defence agency DARPA: make a care drive autonomously through a stretch of desert 200 kilometres long, with only the GPS-coordinates of the route as input. In 2004 the best team came as far as ten kilometres. Many managed just a few metres. The world thought the challenge was so tough it would take many years to complete. Yet, the next year saw five teams making it to the finish, with Thrun's being the fastest.

'I wasn't surprised at all', Thrun stated confidently. 'My assessment was that GPS simply wasn't good enough. If you use it for navigation it is like driving with your eyes shut. Looking for obstacles meant the breakthrough that enabled completing the Challenge,' he said.

The vision system Thrun developed for the Challenge developed into Google Street View. The company then set him a new challenge: build a car that can drive autonomously through the leafy mountains above Silicon Valley and over the highway into the streets of San Francisco. Even he thought it couldn't be done. Five years later it had been done. Again, the key was a technological insight. A camera alone was not enough to provide sufficient information to the pattern recognition software. The car had to be outfitted with a laser system, so it could accurately establish the distance of obstacles.

'From today's perspective everything is easy. At the time when a computer first beat the world champion at chess, we were impressed. Nowadays we think, that wasn't so difficult after all', Thrun noted, just before he was abducted by four students who wanted to have their picture taken with him.