CMU robot car to face urban traffic challenges
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Driving city miles can be dangerous and cause hypertension. But that challenge increases manyfold when the moving vehicle no longer has a human driver.
In the case of Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team, the driver is a bank of computers with new-age software, radar devices, sensors, lasers, cameras and global positioning systems, along with various other high-tech doohickeys, gizmos and gadgets.
And the big question is, will it wend its way through the cityscape and return? If so, will it leave a wake of traffic violations and downed utility poles? Will its computers need air bags?
Those are the issues facing the Tartan Racing team, which is busy turning a Chevrolet Tahoe into a robomobile that can compete in next November's Urban Challenge.
The event, which the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency will hold at a Western site to be announced, will require robotic vehicles to navigate 60 mock city miles through traffic to carry out missions without human interaction.
DARPA competitions entice research teams to push wheeled technology to new heights.
Previous challenges offered a top prize of $2 million, but Congress did not fund the award for next year's competition. For now, DARPA can offer only trophies. But Carnegie Mellon participants said the lack of a cash prize hadn't lessened competitive fires.
In the March 2004 Grand Challenge, none of 15 vehicles finished a 142-mile desert course, but Carnegie Mellon's went farthest. In last year's Grand Challenge, Stanford University edged out the Carnegie Mellon team by 11 minutes in a 131-mile race through the Mojave Desert. Another Carnegie Mellon entry finished third.
But deserts are static environments, save for the occasional tortoise or hare.
A city environment requires much smarter vehicles that observe speed limits and traffic signs. They must travel on the right side of double yellow lines, observe traffic lights and stay clear of city traffic and other obstacles.
"It's a whole other layer of complexity," said Chris Urmson, Tartan Racing's director of technology. "People are working on perception problems with city speeds and urban driving conditions. Not a lot of work has been done in operating in those spaces."
Tartan Racing Director Charles "Red" Whittaker said technology that regulates speed, braking and steering was well understood. But new technology is needed to make the vehicle follow traffic signs and codes. If a competitor's dead vehicle is blocking the road, the car must know when to break the law and cross the double lines to continue its mission.
Tartan Racing received the Chevy Tahoe from its prime sponsor, General Motors, and continues working on the car inside a garage at Carnegie Mellon's Robot City, on the former LTV Steel site on the banks of the Monongahela River off Second Avenue.
Tartan Racing has 12 researchers working full time or close to it on the project, with 12 other participating researchers. A tight timetable leaves little time to solve all the technological puzzles.
Dr. Urmson said the Carnegie Mellon vehicle, yet to be named, had traveled 100 miles, including 50 "blind" miles, in Robot City without human assistance. "We have the vehicle mostly together," he said. "We're happy with the progress so far."
Dr. Whittaker said many challenges remained in providing the car a means of negotiating the urban maze.
"Nothing less than full commitment will succeed," he said, describing his group as a dream team. "We're involved in it because it matters to the future of robotics, it matters to each of us individually, and we're in it for the win. The reality is, it's a fantastic team to work with."
That team is busy making the car do things that were impossible in previous competitions.
In time, the technological leaps will help elderly or disabled drivers and, eventually, all motorists drive more easily and safely. The ultimate vision is a vehicle that does most, if not all, of the driving, removing human whimsy, distraction and road rage from the process.
"Safety concerns are a huge deal," Dr. Urmson said, noting that 42,000 people died last year in traffic accidents nationwide. "If we could make it where cars don't crash, that would save a lot of lives."
DARPA's Web site, www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge, quotes a display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History that describes the agency goal: "Thanks to the DARPA Grand Challenge, it's easier to foresee a day when driverless cars and trucks may not only spare soldiers in battle, but also civilians on the highways."
DARPA will provide trophies to the top three teams that finish the 60-mile Urban Challenge course in less than six hours. The plot involves a military supply vehicle that must find its way through a city and follow traffic laws while avoiding unexpected obstacles to deliver its payload.
Carnegie Mellon is one of DARPA's Track A teams, which qualify for up to $1 million in technology development funds. In return, the government receives limited licensing rights to technologies developed with grant money.
Describing "the urban jungle" that awaits the team, Dr. Whittaker said the car stays in its lane and adjusts its speed to keep proper distance from other vehicles.
The immediate challenge, he said, is to create software and other technology "a leap beyond what's already been done."
That could include sensors that provide 360-degree vision and depth perception and software that makes the vehicle understand and react to whatever it sees. Such goals aren't easily achieved in one year, but Carnegie Mellon researchers are determined to fill their Tahoe with get-go.
Dr. Whittaker said the Robot City culture, where researchers work long hours together with a vast test site outside the garage doors, provides his team a competitive advantage.
"Everything that's needed is under one roof," he said, describing the vehicle as "an incredible human enterprise."
"The machines will do the talking, not the people. It will be a visible, tangible measure of competition of bold machines," Dr. Whittaker said. "This will be state of the art, the best the world can bring."
First Published November 20, 2006 12:00 am