“We have a stretch goal in terms of the technology to
have autonomous vehicles by 2015, and we’re on track
with the technology. We’ll see today whether we’re ready
for the city,” Whitaker said the morning of the race.
DARPA — the government agency that gave the world
the Internet — has been promoting the development of
autonomous ground vehicles since at least 2004, when it
sponsored the first Grand Challenge race.
That year’s contest featured 15 competitors aiming
to traverse a 142-mile offroad course in the Mojave
Desert. But no vehicle went further than seven miles,
and the race was deemed a flop by the media.
But Tether maintained he was onto something and, in
2005, he invited the robots back for another try at a 132-
mile desert course. In that race, 23 finalists entered, five
finished and a Stanford-created Volkswagen Touareg robot
named Stanley took home the top prize of $2 million.
This year’s challenge upped the level of difficulty for
robot participants. According to DARPA, “95 percent
of military logistics missions begin and end in urban
environments,” so the rules were tweaked to ensure
that future robots will be capable of abiding by local
traffic laws and driving safely in crowded spaces.
“This increased the level of difficulty by a whole order
of magnitude,” said Stanford software engineer Antone
Vogt. “The most obvious difference is that in the desert,
you dealt with static obstacles. Here, you have moving
obstacles, and you have to program the robot to distinguish between something like a curb and a paper cup.”
Thus, the competition focused
more on software and technology
systems than on the hardware of
“The vehicle is representative
of an all-new DNA for the automobile industry,” said GM vice president Larry Burns, speaking of
Tartan Racing’s “Boss,” a Chevy
Tahoe sport utility vehicle (SUV)
equipped with radar sensors, global positioning and inertial systems and data fusion technology.
“Electronically driven, electronically controlled and connected,
it’s truly innovative and will move
us into an environment of enhanced safety.”
The final competition did not
disappoint those who traveled to
the former George Air Force Base,
six miles outside Victorville, to
watch history unfold.
Going into the competition, the
two teams to watch were the 2005
Grand Challenge first- and second-place holders,
Stanford and the former Carnegie Mellon Team Red,
now Tartan Racing.
But the crowd also had other promising favorites,
including the largest vehicle, TerraMax, a 13-ton military
truck built by Oshkosh Truck Corp., Oshkosh, Wis.,
[See story, page 26] and sentimental darling — and dark
horse entrant — #32, Odin, Virginia Tech’s robot that
was cruising in memory of the 32 students and staff
members killed by a gunman April 16 at the university.
Other robots included MIT’s Talos, a Land Rover
LR3 SUV loaded with the most computing power of the
11 entrants, carrying the equivalent of 40 computer
processing units and an additional air-conditioning system to cool them; Team Cornell’s Skynet, a black Chevy
Tahoe that looked like it drove straight off the set of the
television show “ 24,” with its shaded windows and
barely visible sensors; and Little Ben, a fuel-efficient
Toyota Prius built by the University of Pennsylvania,
Lehigh University and Lockheed Martin.
“There’s no animal or midget inside controlling
these,” Whitaker said of the bots.
The final race began with a few glitches, including a
scare for pole qualifier Carnegie Mellon, which ran
into trouble starting its systems and entered the race
40 minutes late. The malfunction later was attributed
to interference from a huge Jumbotron television
screen located near the Carnegie Mellon racing chute,
and the delay didn’t count against the team’s time.
Boss, a 2007 Chevy Tahoe modified by the Tartan Racing team, takes the checkered flag at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge.
Eleven unmanned vehicles competed in the 60-mile road race, six of them finished.