You don’t have to live in London, Tokyo, New York or the Bay area to know that we have serious traffic congestion problems on our hands.

Major cities, government agencies and those of us stuck in traffic on a daily basis all recognize the need for smarter highways and traffic management. Against this backdrop, universities like Stanford are working with industry to advance novel technologies that can be applied to today’s congestion headaches.

In October 2005 the Stanford Racing Team galvanized the world’s attention by developing the first robot car to drive — without any human intervention — across a difficult 131.5-mile course in the Mojave Desert to win the DARPA Grand Challenge. On Saturday, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the Stanford team shared details about its latest robot car, Junior, which it is developing to participate in the DARPA Urban Challenge in November 2007.

So what do robot cars have to do with alleviating congestion? Consider that robot cars are capable of driving much closer together than human drivers would be comfortable with and could help eliminate, for instance, the rubber band effect we find on our roads. And, in an added advantage, a UC-Berkeley study demonstrated that trucks can improve fuel efficiency six percent simply by relying on slip streaming. How about a robot car making a reservation for a traffic light? The list goes on and on.

While the applications and discoveries in preparing for this DARPA competition are very promising, the inherent technology, infrastructure and public policy challenges are not trivial. It’s going to take serious leadership and collaboration from government on all levels. A good first start came in May of last year when The Department of Transportation announced a major initiative to reduce transportation system congestion during National Transportation Week. The mayor of London got some attention this past summer advocating a congestion tax.

At the same time we need technology and industry visionaries who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. We’ve seen a number of them coming through our doors lately. Their ideas need funding and that’s where VCs come in.

MDV got involved early with the Stanford Racing Team. It’s one of a series of university based initiatives we have in place. We seed funded the team’s initial project and we’re back on board for this latest challenge. Stanford is not alone in pursuing this challenge. There are currently 85 teams representing nine countries vying for a position in the November 7 contest.

In the meantime, Junior’s predecessor, Stanley, is joining an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC., showcasing the future of automated highways and smart cars. It’s altogether possible that Stanley becomes the Ford Model T of its generation. We’re honored to be a part of a team that is making history and influencing the future.

For more information on the Stanford Racing Team, visit www.stanfordracing.org.