If you Googled “driverless Volkswagen” this Monday morning you’d have gotten over 900 links in the news section.
No, this is not a story about a VW gone awry. Instead it’s about Stanley, a VW Touareg that has gone down in history as the first ever vehicle to drive itself in a race and win no less than a cool $2 million, itself a world record for an auto race prize.
Even more impressive,
Last year, amidst much fanfare, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), a division of the U.S. Department of Defense, organized a race for autonomous vehicles through the Mojave Desert from
One year to finish
Even DARPA officials were surprised when the 43 teams selected to compete in this year’s Grand Challenge showed up at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., a couple of weeks ago and immediately started to be successful. The very first vehicle on the 2.2-mile long obstacle course managed to complete it without coming to a halt.
It was obvious the teams had gained a tremendous amount of knowledge during the intervening 18 months and it began to look as though DARPA would actually achieve its goal of having an entirely autonomous vehicle complete a 130-plus-mile-long course through the desert.
During eight days of qualifying, one bot managed to negotiate the course four times without every hitting a cone, getting stuck in a tunnel without a GPS signal, swiping a parked car in the center of the track, or stumbling into a tank trap. The bot’s name:
Remember that name as it’s now in the history books alongside such famous names as the Wright Brothers and Sputnik.
Stanley, a modified Volkswagen Touareg, is controlled entirely by six Pentium computers with an array of laser sensors and one camera. The key software was written by incredibly bright students and professors at
Stanford Racing is a new team created after last year’s DARPA Grand Challenge as a partnership between
Pole position to the HUMMER
However, despite having the cleanest fault-free runs in qualifying,
Third place in qualifying went to Sandstorm, a modified HUMMER also from the Red Team that had gone furthest in last year’s race. In all 23 bots qualified to start the race.
The exact course was not disclosed until 4:30 a.m., two hours before the start, when DARPA delivered a CD-ROM to each team with the GPS route definition waypoints for the course. These were then entered into the bots’ computers and they were ready to race.
At sunrise on October 8, the top three qualifying bots were lined up at the start in front of hundreds of media from around the world and several thousand spectators on bleachers behind the parking lot of Buffalo Bill’s casino resort in
There was a five-minute gap between each bot, as the organizer’s obviously wanted to avoid any collisions between bots. Naysayers predicted there would still be no finishers as the task to develop a completely autonomous vehicle capable of making decisions on the fly at speeds up to 45 mph as it traverses desert tracks, goes across cattle gratings, under freeway tunnels and along winding mountain passes is still a mammoth undertaking. Optimists predicted seven vehicles would finish.
Right from the start
Within three hours of the start it was abundantly clear how much improved the vehicles were this year. All but three of the 23 vehicles had already gone a greater distance than the best bot from 2004. Indeed there was an actual race going on among the three leading bots as their elapsed times were within minutes of each other.
About 100 miles into the 132-mile course
You could see the tension on the faces of the Stanford team members as they watched the monitors. There was nothing they could do to assist — it was all up to
The DARPA had said the toughest part of the course was eight miles from the finish where the bots would have to traverse a narrow mountain pass with a cliff on one side and a drop off on the other. Stanford admitted ahead of time that
Fifteen minutes later
Stanford was pretty sure
In order to keep the tension high DARPA officials would not declare Stanley a winner until every bot had finished or stopped on the course. That meant a long wait until noon the next day!
A fourth bot finished an hour or so later. It was Team Gray’s Ford Escape Hybrid created by a team from
Meanwhile somewhere out in the desert TerraMax, a 36-ton six-wheel drive modified airport fire truck was trundling along at about 12 mph. This bot, a crowd favorite, was described as a thinking robot as it stopped last year when it refused to run over a sage bush in the desert. Its size meant that it often had to back up and take two or three attempts to get through a narrow opening without crushing things.
At sunset DARPA placed TerraMax on hold until daybreak the following day. It finally crossed the finish line at noon just in time for the prize giving and the TV crews.
Was it Sandstorm or
Eventually a giant replica of a $2 million check was handed over to a jubilant group of Stanford students.
Herbie may be VW’s adopted star of fiction but Stanley is set for a permanent place in the history books as the first winner of a bot race — science fact, not fiction.