Driverless VW Wins DARPA Challenge



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, Stanley started in second position and managed to pass another robot to lead a parade of five finishers in only the second ever off-road race for robotic vehicles.


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 Barstow in California to Primm in Nevada . The DARPA offered $1 million to any team that could get a bot to complete the course without any human intervention. It turned into a fiasco as the most successful bot only managed to go 7.5 miles before getting stuck on a berm. DARPA upped the ante with a second attempt this year with double the prize money.


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: Stanley.


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 University in California . The team leader was Sebastian Thrun, Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and the software leader was Mike Montemerlo, a research associate in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab.


Stanford Racing is a new team created after last year’s DARPA Grand Challenge as a partnership between Stanford University and Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Palo Alto . The two “campuses” are a mere two miles apart and ERL employs several Stanford graduates so it was natural for them to get together last summer and work to create Stanley, the nickname given to the autonomous Touareg.


Pole position to the HUMMER


However, despite having the cleanest fault-free runs in qualifying, Stanley had to cede pole position for the start of the race to H1ghlander, a modified HUMMER entered by the Red Team from Carnegie-Mellon University as it managed a slightly quicker time around the qualifying course at the Speedway.


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 Primm, Nevada, on the border of California.


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 Stanley started catching up with H1ghlander, which had started five minutes earlier. The DARPA officials had to pause Stanley to widen the gap. But a few miles further on there was room on the track so H1ghlander’s accompanying official placed it in a pause mode and Stanley went roaring by to take the lead on the track. The scream of approval from the Stanford support team and hundreds of spectators watching the race on TV monitors back in Primm was deafening. This was exciting stuff — not unlike watching a F1 race.


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 Stanley .


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 Stanley could get confused by reflections from puddles of water and drop-offs as the sensors would not be able to “see” anything. Once Stanley safely made its way though the pass the team really began to believe it was about to achieve DARPA’s goal.


Fifteen minutes later Stanley appeared in a dust cloud as it traversed a dry lake bed and Dr. Tony Tether, the Director of DARPA, stepped out from behind a concrete block and waved the checkered flag. It had completed the course in an elapsed time of just under seven hours at an average speed of 19.1 mph.


Stanford was pretty sure Stanley had won so the team members hoisted Sebastian Thrun and Mike Montemerlo on their shoulders and dozens of TV crews interviewed the human winners. H1ghlander crossed the line about 20 minutes later closely followed by Sandstorm, which had started five minutes behind Stanley.


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 Louis iana that had suffered setbacks in development during Hurricane Katrina. Needless to say it received a warm welcome.


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 Stanley that’d get the $2 million prize? Dr. Tether still kept everyone in suspense when he would only say that the winner’s name started with an S.


Eventually a giant replica of a $2 million check was handed over to a jubilant group of Stanford students. Stanford University gets the money. VW (the only auto manufacturer to really actively participate with any teams) gets incredible publicity. The world of robotics gets a boost and VW plans to use the knowledge gained to improve computer controls to help make driving safer for everyone.


Stanley — he gets to go on tour around the world and eventually end up in VW’s museum in Wolfsburg.


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.


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