Little Ben, a Toyota Prius modified by the University of
Pennsylvania, Lehigh University and Lockheed Martin’s
Ben Franklin Racing Team, prepares to merge at a tight
corner intersection during the Urban Challenge.
Slightly more than an hour into the race, DARPA
commentators announced a historic first — a robot
traffic jam. Skynet had attempted to pass multiple cars
and nearly caused an accident.
Less than 30 minutes later, three bots were out of
the competition: Annie Way, a Volkswagen Passat built
by a German team that took too long in assessing a
problem; XAV-250, a Honeywell/Intelligent Vehicle
Systems Ford truck, which had trouble out of the start
chute, was disqualified for “thinking” too long; and the
lumbering crowd-favorite, TerraMax, which veered off
course and nearly struck a building.
Two more robots would go down in the next hour,
including the University of Central Florida’s Knight Rider,
a 1996 Subaru Outback that created its own parking space
in an uninhabited house. Caroline, another Volkswagen
Passat, seemed to have it in for the MIT entry. Built by a
German team called CarOLO, Caroline nearly hit MIT’s
Talos head-on in a traffic circle and was pulled after another near-miss with the same vehicle.
Later, Skynet and the MIT Talos suffered the first-ever autonomous ground vehicle collision, bumping
each other on a straightaway. No sensors or fenders were
bruised and both were allowed to proceed on the course.
“You can tell these robots almost have different personalities in the way they deal with these problems,”
said commentator Jamie Hyneman of the Discovery
Channel’s “Mythbusters” series. “The Boss and
Stanford are very decisive. … MIT is a little spastic.”
In the end, Tartan Racing, a team of Carnegie
Mellon students and staff and General Motors, took
home the $2 million top prize. Stanford’s “Junior”
came in second, winning $1 million, and Virginia
Tech’s Odin placed third, earning $500,000.
The prize money, DARPA says, is an investment in
technology that could save military lives and up to
40,000 civilian lives a year — the number of people
killed on U.S. roadways annually. It also provides an
incentive that brings academia, industry and government together to promote research, participants said.
“There’s a criticism that the research that goes on in
academia never makes it out of the university. DARPA
has to be commended for bringing everyone together
and making it happen,” said Al Wicks, an associate
professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech.
In addition to the prize money, DARPA provided up
to $1 million in development funds to select teams for
the Urban Challenge. Of the 11 teams that received
such funding, 10 attended the pre-qualifying events
and seven made it to the finals. Four completely self-funded “Track B” teams were chosen for the final competition, with one — Little Ben and the Ben Franklin
Racing Team — finishing the race.
While human nature might cause future drivers to
balk at the idea of turning their wheels over to a computer, spectators at the Urban Challenge quickly warmed to
the sight of cars driving by themselves as if there were
ghostly hands at the steering wheels.
Brig. Gen. James Chambers, the Army’s chief of
transportation, said he attended the event to see the
future of automobile development. He said the technology will, someday, enhance battlefield performance.
“The young people who are dealing with the vehicles and the fleets find this technology promising. It’s
all about the culture and how we were raised. This is
in our future,” Chambers said.
But at least one soldier in the stands said he was
skeptical that the Army could change soldier behavior
to use the technology.
“I’ve been in the Army nearly 30 years, and I know
what soldiers are going to do if they don’t have to have
their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. Do
you think they’re going to be more vigilant and be on
the lookout for insurgents? No, they’re going to do what
soldiers do; they’re going to go to sleep,” said a Virginia-based officer who preferred not to be quoted by name
because “someone invited the generals to this.”
Like many new technologies, developers will have to
overcome the fear of the unknown — the same horror
played out in movies like “The Terminator,” “2001” and
“I Robot.” But if the 100-plus DARPA personnel who
supported the race are any measure of the public’s future
acceptance of such technology, ground autonomous
vehicles — or at least some of their technological innovations — will be mainstream by the end of the decade.
“We’ve just all learned not to turn our backs when
these vehicles are operating,” laughed Whitaker. “We
keep our eyes open.” ■