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No driver? No problem

No driver? No problem

Yesterday, I was down in the Los Angeles area (at the California Speedway in Fontana) watching a series of cars drive themselves around an obstacle course. It was the qualifying rounds for the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition where 20 cars race over a 175-mile desert course. Unlike with most off-road racing, the cars aren't permitted to have a driver. DARPA is sponsoring the event to promote research for autonomous vehicles. The cars ran the gamut from home-built by a couple of engineers in their spare time to full-on corporate efforts. For example, JackBot from MonsterMoto was based on a quad-ATV, using laser range finders and GPS to guide itself. One of its small team of engineers told me that some of the other teams' sensors cost more than MonsterMoto's entire vehicle. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Team TerraMax, using a 15-ton military cargo truck from the Oshkosh Truck Corporation. This thing had all the sensors money could buy: GPS, Ladar, radar, stereovision cameras, and a four-plane laser system.

The vehicles had to run the course four to five times, trying to avoid obstacles while getting to the designated waypoints. Among the obstacles were pylons, stacks of car tires, hay bales, concrete barriers, and parked cars. It was fascinating watching the vehicles navigate, sometimes coming very close to the obstacles, sometimes hitting them, and sometimes just running off in a completely random direction. The ones that went off course tended to stop, and it appeared as if they were thinking about how to get back on course. Some would manage it, while others wouldn't. A metal-lined tunnel comprised one obstacle. It completely blocked out GPS, forcing the cars to rely on other sensors to get through. DARPA released the list of qualifying vehicles (PDF) today. These cars will compete on October 8 for the Grand Challenge.