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GM is teaming with Carnegie Melon University and a slew of other sponsors to compete in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.
By Frank Markus
Remember the 2004 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Grand Challenge? The idea was to build vehicles that could drive themselves 142 miles across an empty desert. That challenge kind of fizzled when the farthest any vehicle managed to travel was 7.4 miles (that was Carnegie Melon University), and nobody won the $1 million prize. In 2005, four teams completed a 132-mile course, including CMU (which finished in 2nd place). Neither of those events attracted much interest from the automotive industry, as the duty cycle-trucks bounding across empty, rough roads-didn't strike automakers as germane to their core business.
That's all changed this year. For 2007, the DARPA Urban Challenge is to navigate city streets, negotiating intersections, merging traffic, unexpected detours, and other unmanned vehicles. Now GM, VW, and others are interested. Alan Taub, GM's Executive Director of R&D sees the end game as a robotic car-not one that must drive itself, or compromises the driver's ability to drive, but one that offers to do the driving in difficult or unpleasant conditions. "For some, DRIVING is the distraction," he quips. These systems will make those folks (and anyone driving near them) safer. Taub also points out that along the way toward the robotic car, GM is rolling out systems that warn drivers of impending danger, intervene to avoid an accident, and relieve drivers of some least pleasant driving tasks. This program involves technology for all of the above.
DARPA has issued $1million grants to 11 qualifying teams for use as seed money in this challenge, and the prize will be $2 million. Of course, GM alone will invest way more than that in the project, so this idea is catalyzing a lot of investment. The teams will need every penny of it, as the challenge is several orders of magnitude more difficult than bounding across an empty desert.
The location of the challenge, which will be held on November 3, has not yet been divulged, but it's expected to be an abandoned airbase. Each team will be presented with the road map data in advance, and the competition will be presented with a 60-mile itinerary of destinations and way points. The computer must map a route and begin moving within five minutes. Rules of the road must be followed, detours accommodated, and of course nobody can hit a competitor's vehicle. No humans will be allowed onboard, nor can live data be streamed to the vehicle. There will be no pedestrians or traffic lights, only stop signs, and the speed limit will be 30 mph.
The GM/CMU entry is based on a 2007 Tahoe, dubbed "Boss" for Charles "Boss" Kettering, who touched off the electrification of the vehicle with his invention of the electric starter (Cadillac, 1911). It bristles with over 25 external sensors, the computing power of ten Compaq Intel Core 2 Duo laptops, and myriad other electric and electronic devices all powered by an auxiliary 8-kW generator under the hood.
At this early stage in its development (qualifying doesn't happen until October), Boss's computers are able to drive, park, and negotiate intersections. We hopped in for a ride, and felt a bit as though we were riding with a first-time driver-ed student (or perhaps a Korean taxi driver). Throttle, brake, and steering inputs are all a bit jerky and tentative, but then no points will be awarded for smoothness or style. The winner will be the first to complete the course cleanly. Stay tuned. What happens this November will give us all a good look at the car of the future. It may not look like iRobot's Audi, but it's likely to behave similarly.