Racing Team's enhanced Touareg makes it to semifinals of robotic car race

Courtesy of MDV-Mohr, Davidow Ventures Darpa car

Stanley, the Stanford Racing Team’s enhanced Volkswagen Touareg, has made the semifinals of the Grand Challenge robotic car race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Stanford Racing Team is one step closer to the $2 million prize for the 2005 Grand Challenge robotic car race. The three-part competition, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is at its second phase, where the 195 initial competitors have been narrowed down to 40 semifinalists who are set to race in heats from Sept. 27 to Oct. 5. The subsequent and final Grand Challenge event will take place on Oct. 8 and will consist of just 20 vehicles racing for the win.

On June 6, the Stanford team's enhanced Volkswagen Touareg, dubbed Stanley, was named a semifinalist. Stanley qualified by flawlessly completing three passes through an S-shaped course strewn with randomly placed trashcans in Barstow, Calif.

But the driverless vehicle wasn't finished there. "As a grand finale, Stanley did an optional 'extra credit' run along last year's Grand Challenge course, driving as fast as DARPA's speed limits would allow," says team member David Stavens, a graduate student in computer science.

Team member Cedric Dupont, senior research engineer for Volkswagen, a primary supporter of the racing team along with Android and Mohr Davidow Ventures, adds, "We are obviously extremely pleased with the performance of the vehicle."

Stanley won't have much time to bask in the glory of its success to date. The vehicle will soon have to compete against the other contestants along the California Speedway in Fontana. Although the course details have not yet been revealed, the Fontana race will include moving and static obstacles for the vehicles to detect and avoid.

However grueling the course may be, the Stanford team is laboring to ensure another stellar performance. After recent testing in Barstow, Dupont says that the vehicle "has proven once more that it is perfectly suited to the harsh conditions it will encounter during the race."

The final competition on Oct. 8 will consist of the remaining vehicles racing against time and each other. The finalists' task will be to navigate a 150-mile course stretching somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in less than 10 hours.

Win, lose or draw, the work of the Stanford Racing Team will not go unrewarded. Says Stavens: "Of course we want Stanley to win this historic race, but we also feel that whether we win or not, we can also lay the groundwork for future innovations in automotive safety and advance knowledge in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence."

Latice Strickland is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.