February 19, 2007 The 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge marked a milestone in artificial intelligence when five autonomous vehicles finished the course and Stanford Racing Team’s Stanley went down in history as the winner of the first race for autonomous vehicles. Centuries from now, the win will be equally significant as winning the first auto race from Paris to Rouen in 1894. Indeed, a century from now, there’s every chance that cars will all be autonomous, as computers make less mistakes than human beings. The robots in the 2007 Urban Challenge, however, will need all of Stanley’s capabilities plus a whole lot more as this time they need to handle real traffic. “In the last Grand Challenge, it didn’t really matter whether an obstacle was a rock or a bush because either way you’d just drive around it,” says Stanford Team Leader Sebastian Thrun. “The current challenge is to move from just sensing the environment to understanding the environment.” Thrun is the Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. When the bookmakers frame the odds for the Urban Challenge, Thrun’s charge will be favourite. On Saturday, Thrun introduced Stanford Racing Team’s new challenger to the world. Junior is a new generation of autonomous vehicle built to accomplish missions in a simulated city environment, which includes the traffic of the other robots and traffic laws. This means that on race day, November 3, Junior not only will have to avoid collisions, but he will have to master concepts that befuddle many humans, such as right of way. Junior began life as a 2006 Volkswagen Passat wagon.
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