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Prelude to a Robot Race

On Saturday, 11 autonomous vehicles designed by the best roboticists in the world will compete for a $2 million prize in the Urban Challenge.

This week, robotic cars overran the desert town of Victorville, CA. Thirty-five autonomous vehicles, capable of piloting themselves without any human aid, came to compete in the Urban Challenge, a robot race sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The robots’ goal is to autonomously–and safely–navigate city streets, avoid obstacles in the roads, merge with traffic, park in a crowded lot, and perform other tasks on the roads of the former George Air Force Base. The robotic car that completes the course with the most points for speed, accuracy, and style will win a $2 million prize. Two runners-up will receive $1 million and $500,000.

Boss: The vehicle from Carnegie Mellon University, named Boss, qualified for the final Urban Challenge event on Saturday. Boss uses novel software that takes data from sensors and maps out a 3-D world as it drives.

(See robotic cars from Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon driving autonomously.)

The Urban Challenge is the follow-up race to DARPA’s Grand Challenge races, which occurred in 2004 and 2005. The previous races tested a vehicle’s ability to drive on an empty desert road. The Urban Challenge is much more complicated, which is a testament to the rapid advances of robotics and autonomous-vehicle technology over the past few years. DARPA hopes to use technology developed for these competitions to build combat and convoy vehicles that don’t need human drivers. In addition, many researchers in the field believe that elements of these technologies could be incorporated into consumer cars in the next five years to help drivers avoid accidents and to assist those who are impaired.

On Wednesday, the robots finished the National Qualifying Event, a set of pretrials designed to winnow the field to, at most, 20 cars. Yesterday, DARPA announced that only 11 vehicles were safe enough to qualify for the final event on Saturday. (See a slide show and video of six of the finalists.) The final course will be challenging, as live drivers and robots will be sharing the road. At a press conference on Thursday, Tony Tether, the director of DARPA, said that one of the obstacles that the robots must face could be a traffic jam. Ultimately, he said, the winner will be the car that completes the courses with the best time but still qualifies for a California driver’s license.

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Saturday’s event will start at 8:00 A.M. Pacific Standard Time and will be webcast live at the Urban Challenge website.

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