The DARPA Grand Challenge, organised by the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, pits driverless vehicles against one another in a daring dash across a 280-kilometre stretch of hazardous Californian desert. The winner must complete the course in less than 10 hours in order to scoop the $2 million prize. The vehicles must run the whole race without a human driver, autonomously identifying and steering around corners or unexpected dangers, such as boulders or ditches.
No vehicle completed the course in 2004 event, which saw a number of competitors crash spectacularly and some struggle to make it from the starting line after malfunctioning. The most successful vehicle was a modified Humvee built at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US, which completed 12 km before being deactivated close to a cliff edge.
But among the frontrunners in 2005’s race is likely to be the new SUV, nicknamed Stanley, developed at Stanford University's computer science lab and Volkswagen's Electronics Research Laboratory, both in California, US.
....Stanley builds a 3D picture of its surroundings in real time, using an array of stereo video cameras and roof-mounted laser range-finders. A suite of seven laptop computers in the trunk analyse this information 10 times a second, adding GPS satellite data to its picture of the world. Currently, the vehicle can career along at a comfortable 55 km per hour with no human intervention whatsoever.
...."Stanley has been equipped with drive-by-wire, which allows us to electronically steer, brake, accelerate and shift the vehicle," says Cedric Dupont, one of the team. "The computer can take control of the things that a driver typically does."
Gentlebots, start your engines.