TORC Makes a Magical Car

I keep a list of top moments in my life.

TORC Technologies, LLC, a member company of high-tech business accelerator VT KnowledgeWorks, gave me a new one.

Several of my top moments involve cars.

A young colleague’s father owned a Jaguar and the young colleague gave me a very youthful, very fast ride on I-275 in that sleek, silent power.

Just before gas prices soared, a guy at the gym bought a bright yellow convertible Hummer (looked something like this) and jounced me and one of the trainers on a sweaty ride through the subtropical heat of Tampa. At a stoplight with traffic in front of us, he said, "This baby could climb right over those cars." He and the trainer nodded sagely.  The ability to climb cars seemed a very important feature to have in the tan stucco suburban jungle of north Tampa.

My best car experience–before the one I had thanks to TORC–occurred in 1981 at a long-gone car dealership in Blacksburg, Virginia on 460, just down from the Dairy Queen. They had a De Lorean.

It seemed a car of the future, part plane, doors hinged and lifted like wings, stainless steel body half burnished, half raw, like a man in a business suit with a five o’clock shadow.

De_lorean With a very uneasy salesman hovering ("Don’t touch anything!"), I got to sit in that De Lorean.

During the impressive presentation at the NCTC Technology & Toast at the Holiday Inn on 3/20/08 by Michael Fleming, CEO of TORC Technologies, LLC, we all sat in our professional attire, watched the PowerPoint slides, and asked thoughtful questions revealing genuine awe and respect for the countless hours of ingenuity and expertise that had converted a regular car (small detail–a Ford Something Hybrid) into an autonomous car that was "aware" enough to "perceive" its environment and "decide" what to do. 

An unwritten rule of networking events is that we talk biz afterwards.  Not this time.

Suits and heels hurried out to see the car.

I waited inside and talked with the few who lingered and waited a little more.  I had an ulterior motive.  I wanted to sit in the magical car that drove itself.

When I got to the entrance of the Holiday Inn, only two guests remained.  With Pat Currier, a graduate student completing his M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, they were looking under the proverbial hood, this time in the hatchback, at TORC’s AutonoNavand other black boxes.  They were discussing SONAR and LASAR.  I will admit I interrupted. 

Cheerful, fearless, extremely knowledgeable Pat Currier let me sit in the magic car.  He dropped open the glove box. No maps, no Kleenex–a hidden computer! Plain ol’ dashboard–except for a key in the middle of it tied to a long red lanyard. If the car decided it was no longer autonomous, but hegemenous, and screeched out of the Holiday Inn parking lot and careened onto University Park Boulevard, all I’d have to do is pull the red lanyard.

Or mash the giant, fee-fi-fo-fum red button by the emergency brake. Pat smashed the button deftly with his fist. I jumped. He laughed. "Sorry," he said. I laughed, too. Guys live to get reactions from girls.  Gotta love ’em.

I settled back.  I felt like a diva with a ghostly chauffeur named Victor T.

Thanks, TORC.  That was a great moment.

***

Team VictorTango, a cooperative venture between TORC and Virginia Tech, placed third in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.  Here’s some footage from the Challenge.  As you can see–well, as you can’t see–the invisible Victor T. is at the wheel. 

Added 3/27/08:  To keep up on the latest from TORC, read the TORC blog, Unmanned and Autonomous Ground Vehicles.

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