Drivers?! We don't need no stinking drivers

Automated, driverless cars may be coming soon to an intersection near you.

At least that science fiction-like scenario seems possible with the work going on at Carnegie Mellon University and a myriad other research sites across the country.

Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing team today said its automated Chevy Tahoe SUV, named "Boss" is concentrating on finding a parking spot, parking legally and then leaving a parking lot without a fender bender. The self-driving SUV can already negotiate some city streets and intersections, the researchers said.

Headless carman?

The Boss and many other automated vehicles are prepping for the Urban Challenge, a 60-mile competition for such vehicles sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In fact DARPA will hold its third Grand Challenge competition on November 3, 2007.

DARPA is offering $2 million for the fastest qualifying vehicle, and $1 million and $500,000 for second and third place. DARPA says its Urban Challenge program has the lofty goal of developing technology that will keep soldiers off the battlefield and out of harm's way.

The Urban Challenge features autonomous ground vehicles maneuvering in a mock city environment, executing simulated military supply missions while merging into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, negotiating busy intersections, and avoiding obstacles.

DARPA defines an autonomous car or truck as any vehicle that navigates and drives entirely on its own with no human driver and no remote control. Through the use of various sensors and positioning systems, the vehicle determines all the characteristics of its environment required to enable it to carry out the task it has been assigned, the agency said on its Web site.

"Improvement of robot driving doesn't equate to the mastery needed for Urban Challenge success," said William "Red" Whittaker, team leader and the Fredkin Research Professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "Sensing, computing and software capabilities are already leaps beyond those of prior robot races, but so is the Urban Challenge's degree of difficulty. It is not yet clear whether any machine can succeed, and that uncertainty is some of the appeal of the competition," he added. "Many automotive, academic, defense and international contenders are new to the competition and they raise the bar above anything yet known in robotics."

In the run-up to November, the Tartan team is developing a long list of skills, including long-range perception, predicting the behavior of other vehicles, and seeing berms and lane markings. Parking lot skills were a major emphasis in Arizona. An inexperienced human driver might welcome the freedom of movement in an uncrowded parking lot, but that high degree of freedom is itself a challenge for autonomous vehicles, they said in a release.

"If you're driving down the street, the vehicle knows it has to go in the direction of the street," said Chris Urmson, the team's director of technology in a release. "But in a parking lot, there's a lot more freedom and, therefore, a lot more decisions that the vehicle must make. GPS can tell Boss where to park, but figuring out how to get there so that it is properly aligned with the parking space requires a great deal of planning."

When parking, Boss must make a number of decisions, often involving forward and reverse motions, and execute some tight turns to position itself correctly. Thus far, Boss has contended with parking lots cluttered with obstacles, but will need to improve its ability to navigate around moving obstacles. "We don't want the vehicle being surprised by a shopping cart," Urmson added.

Tartan Racing sponsors include General Motors, Caterpillar, Continental AG, Intel, Google, Applanix, TeleAtlas, Vector, Ibeo, Mobileye, CarSim, CleanPower Resources, MA/COM, NetApp Vector CANtech and Hewlett Packard. DARPA has also selected Tartan Racing as one of 11 teams that will receive up to $1 million in federal funds for technology development.

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