Autonomous CarsOctober 23, 2020
We do need to do some work when utilizing an automobile – we need to drive it. Wouldn’t life be easier if we could just get into the vehicle, say where we wish to go and doze off till the destination is reached? Fantastical as it might seem, it might be possible in the not too distant future if the innovations showcased in the DARPA Urban Challenge in the year 2007 are developed to their full potentials. Even though you cannot see such autonomous vehicles on the roads anytime soon, the participants at the DARPA Urban Challenge give us cause for hope.
For all those that do not realize it yet, DARPA or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the main research body of the US Department of Defense. With a total personnel strength of only 240, DARPA manages a $3.4 billion spending budget, aiming to develop new technologies for use by the military. In this capacity, it’s made significant contributions to several technologies we take for granted today, like the Internet and GPS. DARPA is authorized by Congress to award cash prizes to encourage research with possible national security uses. In this regard, DARPA started an annual competition, called the Grand Challenge, for driverless or autonomous vehicles in 2004 that ran for 3 years, with the final one in the year 2007 being designated the Urban Challenge.
DARPA defines a stand-alone vehicle as a vehicle that navigates and drives entirely on its own with no human driver and no remote control. Throughout the use of various sensors and positioning systems, the car determines all the characteristics of its environment required to be able to carry out the task it’s been assigned. Whilst the first two required driverless vehicles to negotiate roads, turns and tunnels in the desert without human intervention, the last one has asked vehicles to follow traffic laws in a simulated urban environment. Whilst the first two challenges were more physically demanding, but had little interaction between the vehicles, the Urban Challenge required the individual participants to make Intelligent decisions in real time based on the actions of other vehicles.
Even though the competitions were open to teams around the world, each team had to have a minimum of one American citizen as a member. The DARPA Grand Challenge 2004 was held in the Mojave Desert, where 25 teams fought it out for the grand prize of one million dollars. Even though none of the teams completed the 150 mile route, the vehicle from Carnegie Mellon University traveled the furthest – 7.36 miles – and was announced the winner. The team from Stanford University finished first, closely followed by two vehicles from Carnegie Mellon. The 3rd competition was the hardest of all and required the Team to build an autonomous vehicle able to drive in traffic, performing complex techniques like merging, passing, parking, and negotiating intersections. Development of such technology has potentially immense benefits not only for military purposes, but civilian uses as well.