August 10, 2007 It might not have the publicity, crowds or glamour of a Formula 1, NASCAR or MotoGP event, but the DARPA Urban Challenge is unquestionably the most important motoring event that will take place on Planet Earth this year viewed from an historical perspective. That's because the competing cars will be driven entirely by computers and the ground-work is being done to finally remove the most unreliable part of the automobile - the human being that drives it. The rules of engagement have been known for some time, but now the venue has been named - the Urban Challenge will take place in Victorville, California at the site of the former George Air Force Base on November 3, 2007. Thirty-six semi-finalist teams have also been named to compete at the National Qualification Event (NQE) will take place at the same location, October 26-31, 2007.
The top 20 teams from the NQE will move on to the Urban Challenge final event on November 3, and compete for cash prizes worth $2 million for first, $1 million for second, and $500,000 for third place.
DARPA selected the Victorville location because its network of urban roads best simulate the type of terrain American forces operate in when deployed overseas. “The robotic vehicles will conduct simulated military supply missions at the site. This adds many of the elements these vehicles would face in operational environments,” explained DARPA director Dr. Tony Tether. The site is currently used by the U.S. Army to train for urban operations. As soon as the Army finishes their training rotation, DARPA will conduct clean-up operations to ready the site for the competition. DARPA emphasized that from the time of the announcement, the site is strictly to teams until their arrival on October 24.
At the NQE and the final event, the robots must operate entirely autonomously, without human intervention, and obey California traffic laws while performing maneuvers such as merging into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, and avoiding moving obstacles.
“The vehicles must perform as well as someone with a California Driver’s License.” Said Dr. Tether.
DARPA conducted competitive site visits across the United States to select the semi-finalists. Dr. Tether told attendees at DARPATech that he was at a site visit and was surprised how well the team’s autonomous vehicle made it through an intersection with other cars, just as if there was a human driver in the vehicle. “The depth and quality of this year’s field of competitors is a testimony to how far the technology has advanced since the first Grand Challenge in 2004. DARPA thanks all the contestants for their hard work and dedication and congratulates the teams selected as semi-finalists,” Dr. Tether said.
The DARPA Urban Challenge is the third in a series of competitions DARPA has held to foster the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology to save lives on the battlefield. Safe operation in traffic is essential to U.S. military plans to use autonomous ground vehicles to conduct important missions. DARPA will award cash prizes to the top three finishers that complete the course within the six-hour time limit.
A full list of semi-finalists can be found at the DARPA Grand Challenge site and you can listen to the webcast of this latest announcement, which includes an interesting summary of the history of the DARPA Challenge.