Tartan Racing to compete in 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge

Navigating the urban jungle just got a whole new meaning for one Carnegie Mellon team. The University recently announced its upcoming participation in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge, to be held in November 2007.

Past DARPA challenges required competitors to create an autonomous vehicle that could race across the desert with other teams’ vehicles.

Research professor William “Red” Whittaker heads Tartan Racing, the team of Carnegie Mellon researchers who will participate in the competition.

Whittaker is a member of the Robotics Institute and no stranger to DARPA competitions. In fact, Carnegie Mellon competed in two of DARPA’s previous challenges under Whittaker’s leadership.

But the 2007 Grand Challenge will provide its challengers with a brand new experience. Instead of being held in the desert, as it was in the past, competitors in 2007 will race their vehicles within a city.

“The urban challenge is a very bold challenge. It might defy victory in the first or second competition,” said Whittaker. “But the only way to know that is to pursue it.”

To increase its chances of winning, the team has gathered some of the leading researchers and sponsors in the automotive industry. “We’re running with a great front line of sponsors. They have a huge stake in this,” Whittaker said.

Chris Urmson is Tartan Racing’s technology leader. As technology leader, it is Urmson’s primary task to guide Tartan Racing’s team of researchers while preparing for the challenge.

“The biggest thing involved is just understanding the technology we’re trying to use,” Urmson said. “The task is daunting, but it’s very exciting.”

Tartan Racing’s first large sponsor was automotive giant General Motors Corp., which had planned on joining with Carnegie Mellon for months.

Whittaker expressed excitement about the automotive sponsor, saying, “They’re as big as it gets, and they’re keen to win this. They’re just phenomenal partners.”

GM provided Tartan Racing with two Chevy Tahoes. Chevy, advertised as being “like a rock,” will get to prove its claim as it maneuvers the city streets without a human driver.

Whittaker said that none of the competitors are really certain about what type of car, and particularly what size of car, would fare the best in the challenge.

The team decided that a larger car with a strong body frame would be able to withstand less-than-perfect road conditions.

The team plans to outfit the automobiles with cameras, sensors, and automated steering and braking capabilities, which the team acknowledged is a difficult task.

“CMU does a lot of things really well, but you wouldn’t think of us as a mainstream automotive technology school,” Whittaker said.

“The race to the race can be more challenging than the race itself. No matter how hard you work, you can’t do it just on air. It takes money, and it takes tremendous commitment.”

To help the team with financing the challenge, several other sponsors have joined Tartan Racing, including Caterpillar, Google, and Intel. “Speed costs money, and the only question is: ‘How fast do you want to go?’,” Whittaker said.

Mobileye will be assisting the team with the cameras they intend to use on the vehicles. “They do a great job in camera vision to read the road,” said Whittaker.

And it’s that task that makes the 2007 Urban Challenge different from DARPA’s previous ones. During the course, Tartan Racing’s vehicle will have to stay within traffic lanes, obey traffic signals, and negotiate intersections autonomously.

“I think it has tremendous implications,” said Urmson. “If we are able to develop autonomous cars, we can give freedom to people who are at a disadvantage because of disability or age.”

Whittaker also talked about the importance of the challenge. “Winning the challenge is not the ultimate goal. It’s just a start to creating good research on automating a multitude of machines,” he said.

“If you think about it worldwide, if you go to Japan or South America, and how big a deal are coal-mining robots.”

Whittaker and Urmson both said that they were excited to participate in the upcoming challenge because of their team.

“Some team members are very dear friends, because we started together and we’ve stayed together,” Whittaker said. “And there are tremendous rookies that are fresh blood that bring the vitality and creativity of new ideas, as well as a lot of serious work to the game.”

“I think it’s great we’re doing it,” Urmson said.

But the team still has a large amount of work to do in order to be ready on race day. “For this team, time is what matters. The clock is ticking,” Whittaker said.

As for the location of the race, all that any of the teams know is that it will be held in a city on the West Coast. DARPA traditionally doesn’t let the teams know of the location until two days prior to the race.
Tartan Racing still remains confident.

“We’re a force to be reckoned with,” said Whittaker, “and we’re going to be there on race day.”