Those nice folks at DARPA, the same people who gave us the Internet, have a cool little contest wherein the challenge is to create autonomous unmanned vehicles which can navigate unrehearsed obstacle courses. That’s a fancy way of saying, “robot cars.” Your tax dollars (actually, um, US tax dollars) at work!
The contest was launched in 2003 and first run in 2004. That first year none of the 15 competitors completed the 142-mile off-road course. The following year, 23 teams raced but only 5 finished. “Stanley,” the Volkswagen Touareg entered by Stanford University (Palo Alto, California), finished first with a time of 6 hours, 53 minutes, 58 seconds.
Fast-forward to 2007. “Junior,” a Volkswagen Passat Wagon also entered by Stanford, completed DARPA’s Urban Challenge, a 60-mile city course which included tests such as finding a parking spot, merging into traffic flow, not plowing down pedestrians, and drifting Dukes of Hazzard-style around traffic circles.
DARPA has since gotten out of the autonomous vehicle game, presumably to move on to the next bleeding-edge technology nugget, which we hear is cars and trucks with friggin’ laser beams on their heads.
Regardless, today we have Stanford’s third installment of cars without drivers, and this one aims to go racing. Instead of slowly navigating dirt ravines and gigantic mole hills, or dipping and weaving through rush hour traffic, Stanford’s pretty little unnamed Audi TTS is built to go as fast as it can while still maintaining control. The idea is eventually this technology can be adapted to regular, people-driven cars so as to keep the idiot masses from killing themselves.
David Stavens is a PhD student who co-designed the original Stanley. He says of the DARPA events: “The challenges were exciting. They inspired us to come together and advance the field.” He did let on, however, that while he will miss the structure of the contests, this new freedom allows researchers to, “have a moment to step back and look at the whole problem.” He also sees other DARPA competitors coming out for some fun.
If you’re thinking that Volkswagen of America and Stanford University seem pretty cozy with one another, you’re correct. Stanley and Junior were developed with VWoA, and those nice Germans have also thrown US$5.75M (over the next 5 years) toward the Vehicle Automotive Innovation Laboratory at Stanford’s School of Engineering.
Trials have happened on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Oh, and where are they planning on racing their new toy? Try the Pikes Peak Hill Climb!
[ IEEE Spectrum ]