Emerging Tech

Robot-Car Finalists Rev Up for DARPA’s Urban Road Rally

Eleven robotic vehicles will compete in the final race Saturday of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge event, the group announced Thursday.

Selected from a group of 35 that participated in qualifying events over the past week or so, the 11 finalists will now have to successfully complete a complex, 60-mile urban course with live traffic in less than six hours. They will operate on the course roads alongside approximately 50 traffic vehicles driven by professionally trained volunteer drivers.

The winning robotic vehicle will be chosen on the basis of not just speed, but also safety: They must meet the same standards required to pass the California DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) road test. The first-place prize is US$2 million; second and third place will garner $1 million and $500,000, respectively.

Just Like Real Life

The teams named as finalists were the Ben Franklin Racing Team, of Philadelphia; CarOLO, of Caroline, N.Y.; Honeywell/Intelligent Vehicle Solutions, of Troy, Mich.; MIT, of Cambridge, Mass.; the Stanford Racing Team, of Stanford, Calif.; Tartan Racing, of Pittsburgh; Team Cornell, of Ithaca, N.Y.; Victor Tango, of Blacksburg, Va.; Team AnnieWay, of Palo Alto, Calif.; Team Oshkosh Truck, of Oshkosh, Wis.; and Team UCF, of Orlando, Fla.

“TeamUCF is thrilled to be in the finals of the DARPA Urban Challenge,” team leader Benjamin Patz told TechNewsWorld. “It’s the culmination of 18 months of hard work by six dedicated individuals on a shoestring budget. The car has performed excellently and we keep our fingers crossed that the 1996 Subaru Legacy will hold together for one more race.”

All participating vehicles must be entirely autonomous ground vehicles, which navigate and drive entirely on their own with no human driver and no remote control. They must be completely under the control of their onboard mission computers as soon as the race begins — human observers may intervene only for safety purposes.

‘Split-Second Decisions’

Saturday’s event is set at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., and the driving challenges on the course will include traffic circles, merges, four-way intersections, blocked roads, parking, passing slower moving vehicles, and merging safely with traffic on two- and four-lane roads.

“Vehicles competing in the Urban Challenge will have to think like human drivers and continually make split-second decisions to avoid moving vehicles, including robotic vehicles without drivers, and operate safely on the course,” said Urban Challenge Program Manager Norman Whitaker. “The urban setting adds considerable complexity to the challenge faced by the robotic vehicles and replicates the environments where many of today’s military missions are conducted.”

Continental Automotive Systems is a key sponsor of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing team, which has developed the vehicle known as “Boss.” The global supplier provided an array of active safety sensors for the school’s robotic vehicle entry and an embedded engineer with expertise in sensor data fusion that enables Boss to recognize the total traffic environment.

‘It’s Been Amazing’

“It’s been amazing,” Dean McConnell, director of occupant safety and driver assistance systems with Continental, told TechNewsWorld.

Five radar sensors installed on the outside of the vehicle use a combination of long- and short-range sensing to help the vehicle identify objects around it, McConnell explained. Infrared sensors and cameras are also used to provide input, and all that data must be synthesized to help the vehicle’s onboard computer decide what action to take: pause, steer, brake or accelerate, he added.

Continental also supplied Tartan Racing with custom-made General brand Grabber UHP tires with ContiSeal technology that protects against penetration by nails and screws.

Market Potential

DARPA, which does research in support of military missions for the Department of Defense (DoD), has sponsored two previous autonomous robotic ground vehicle competitions that were known as the “DARPA Grand Challenge.”

The 2004 competition featured 15 vehicles attempting to complete a 142-mile desert course for a $1 million cash prize, but none of the vehicles finished. In the 2005 Grand Challenge, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 132-mile desert route under the required 10-hour limit, and DARPA awarded a $2 million prize to the vehicle known as “Stanley” from Stanford University.

Whichever entrant ends up winning this year’s race, the technology that comes out of it has the potential to find its way to market — someday.

‘Holy Grail’

“Autonomous vehicles are the Holy Grail of the auto industry, but right now it’s still very early days — they probably won’t happen commercially in our lifetime,” Mark Fitzgerald, an analyst of automotive technologies at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld.

More than 90 percent of car wrecks are due to human error, Fitzgerald said, so robotic operation would go a long way towards making the roads safer. It would also allow for car “pontooning,” whereby cars on the highway can be separated by just a small space for more efficient use of the roads and alleviation of many traffic issues, he said.

In the meantime, though, races like the DARPA Urban Challenge “come down to processing power,” he added. “It’s a question of how to integrate the sensor input into a cohesive vehicle where everything works together.”

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