CMU team takes charge at Urban Challenge

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency gained ground in its quest for autonomous military vehicles at this year's Urban Challenge, in which teams put their unmanned vehicles into competition on simulated city streets.

Carnegie Mellon University's entry, a Chevy Tahoe named Boss, drove away with top honors and a $2 million first prize earlier this month. Stanford University, the first-prize winner in DARPA's 2005 contest won second place and $1 million this year with a Volkswagen Passat called Junior. Virginia Tech's Victor Tango team took third place and $500,000 with Odin, a 2005 Ford Hybrid Escape.

DARPA, the research and development arm of the Defense Department, announced the Urban Challenge winners early this month after putting self-driven vehicles from 35 semifinalist teams through their paces during more than a week of qualifying races and a final contest among 11 teams. A group of 150 DARPA officials armed with the 2007 California Driver Handbook judged the races at George Air Force Base in Victorville, a facility used to teach urban-combat skills.

DARPA considerably upped the complexity of the race this year by adding a city layout and moving traffic to nudge competitors forward in the design of new sensor, data processing and navigational systems and the development of techniques for building completely autonomous vehicles that will make their commercial production for the military feasible. The vehicles vied to complete a 60-mile simulated military urban supply mission without human intervention while obeying traffic laws, safely merging into moving traffic, negotiating busy intersections, following and passing other moving vehicles, passing stopped vehicles, making a U-turn, and finding an alternate route to avoid an obstacle blocking the primary route.

DARPA has now sponsored three robotic vehicle competitions with the goal of meeting a congressional requirement that a third of the military's operational ground combat vehicles be unmanned by 2015. Fifteen vehicles competed in the agency's first contest in March 2004, but none completed the 142-mile desert course. In the second competition, in October 2005, four vehicles completed a 132-mile desert course within a 10-hour time limit.

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