Boss ruled the roads as Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing Team took first prize in DARPA's Urban Challenge. The competition began with dozens of teams building fully autonomous vehicles that would have to navigate a 60-mile course, complete with traffic and other commuter obstacles. On Saturday, 11 of those teams took part in the finals on the streets of Victorville, Calif.
"Robots sometimes stun the world, inspire a lot of people, and change the belief of what is possible," said William "Red" Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor and team leader of Tartan Racing. "We've seen that here, and once the perception of what's possible changes, it never goes back. This is a phenomenal thing for robotics."
Tartan Racing won the event's $2 million grand prize with a combination of safety and speed. Boss, a robotized 2007 Chevy Tahoe, completed the course while following California driving laws and averaging 14 mph over approximately 55 of the course’s miles. In fact, it finished the course 20 minutes ahead of Junior, the entry from Stanford University's Racing Team.
"Everything that I saw Boss do looked great," said Chris Urmson, Tartan Racing’s director of technology. "It was smooth. It was fast. It interacted with other traffic well. It did what is was supposed to do."
Junior, a modified Volkswagen Pasaat, earned Stanford Racing the $1 million second prize. Odin, the robotic Ford Escape from Virginia Tech’s Victor Tango team, took third place and a $500,000 prize. Other finalists included a mix of academic and corporate competitors alike, such as Team UCF from the University of Central Florida, the TerraMax Truck from Team Oshkosh, and the CarOLO team of the Braunschweig University of Technology.
During the final event, each team had to complete three 20-mile missions in less than six hours. Out on the course, the vehicles had to merge into moving traffic, negotiate four-way intersections and traffic circles, avoid obstacles, and even park in crowded lots, all on their way to their assigned destinations. On top of that, the robots had to safely interact with approximately 50 other vehicles on the road, all driven by live human beings, as well as each other.
Members of Tartan Racing attribute their success to their TROCS software system, which produced graphic animations of the car’s sensor and data inputs during each run. The system let the team understand what Boss saw as it drove as well as how and why it responded to its environment. The team then could quickly identify and fix troublesome behaviors while leaving appropriate behaviors alone.
DARPA's push for autonomous vehicles stems from a Congressional mandate requiring a third of all operational ground combat vehicles to be unmanned by 2015. Previous competitions in 2004 and 2005 have put autonomous cars to the test over unpopulated desert terrain.
"The urban setting adds considerable complexity to the challenge faced by the robotic vehicles and replicates the environments where many of today's military missions are conducted," said Norman Whitaker, Urban Challenge Program Manager.