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The Autonomous-Car Chaos of the 2004 Darpa Grand Challenge

As Sandstorm turned the first corner and started to disappear into the open desert, its laser scanner detected a clear path ahead, and its detailed map data said it was time to hit the throttle. Sandstorm’s wheels spun, kicked up dust, and carried it away at more than 30 mph.

For Chris Urmson and his teammates, the moment resonated. This was the first time they had let their robot out of sight and out of their control. There was nothing more they could do. No more testing, no more fixing. Sandstorm would complete the course, or it wouldn’t. And its first big test was just a few miles ahead. The trick to getting up and over Daggett Ridge was mastering the switchbacks, hairpin turns so tight that following a GPS path alone could easily send a vehicle tumbling off the path and hundreds of feet down. So could a misaligned sensor or any number of software glitches. If you could clear that hurdle, however, it was back to flat ground and mostly clear roads, nearly smooth sailing all the way to Primm.

Over the next 20 minutes, three more vehicles left the gate, following Sandstorm’s trail. It looked like Tether was going to get a proper race, even after some very shaky showings in the qualifying round. Then the problems started.

Sixth off the line was Axion Racing, a group of friends from San Diego, funded by an investor in a company importing bottled water from Micronesia. Over the previous year, software lead Melanie Dumas, an engineer who’d once written off the Grand Challenge as impossible and not worth trying, had seen her skepticism and reluctance transform into swelling optimism.

She had seen her team’s Jeep drive in this kind of terrain, and drive well. She even thought that, with a bit of luck, it might outrun Carnegie Mellon’s Sandstorm. When the flag waved, the Jeep pulled out of the chute and made the first turn smoothly. But as it approached the first narrow gate, it turned again. All the way around. There was no obvious reason for the about-face. Maybe the sensors had deemed the opening too tight. Perhaps something else had acted up. It didn’t matter. As the Jeep drove back to the starting line, sending its chase vehicle backward like a linebacker, Darpa hit its emergency shutoff. Axion’s Grand Challenge was over in a matter of seconds. Dumas was devastated.

Next up was the University of Louisiana’s six-wheeled Cajunbot. It smacked a wall on the way out of the chute, knocking itself out of contention. It was followed by Ensco’s bathtub of a bot. As the flag waved, it stood frozen for a few seconds, rolled forward, stopped, then started again. It drifted to the left, where the edge of the road sloped upward, tilting to one side before moving back to flat ground. Then it went left again, this time too far. It flipped over and landed on its side, 1,000 feet into a 142-mile course. The whole run lasted 1 minute and 6 seconds.

A group of students from Palos Verdes High School had spent the night before the race scrambling to fix the steering controls for their vehicle. At the last moment, they settled on a solution they hoped would work, with no time to test it. Their prayer went unanswered. Their entry, Doom Buggy, never turned at all. It rolled out in a straight line and, after 50 yards, hit a concrete barrier.

SciAutonics I, led by an engineer who’d worked on Germany’s autonomous driving efforts in the 1980s, saw its ATV wander off the trail, never to return. (The SciAutononics II made it about seven miles before getting stuck on an embankment.) The University of Florida’s Cimar strayed off course half a mile in and got tangled in a wire fence. Terramax, the 14-ton, lime-green, six-wheeled military truck, went 1.2 miles before getting stuck between a pair of small bushes that its sensors mistook for immovable obstacles. Tired of watching it lurch back and forth like a driver trying to escape an impossibly tight parallel parking space, Tony Tether ordered the kill.

 

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