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07/28/2003 07:00:00

Caltech Car: No CD Player, No Seats, No Driver

PASADENA, Calif. – Interstate 15 is a virtual race track on any given Friday night, as road warriors from Los Angeles speed to cover the 250 miles to the neon-lit town wags refer to as "Lost Wages" (that is, of course, Las Vegas).

Making that same journey off-road across the Mojave desert would be a little insane for these folks. Making that same journey without a driver would be crazier still, but that's exactly what a group of undergraduates at the California Institute of Technology plan on doing. Talk about gambling.

The team of 23 Caltech students is competing for a $1 million prize in the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous ground vehicle race, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This will not be a remote-controlled vehicle driven by a student wielding a laptop at a distance, but a completely autonomous car that will drive and navigate itself at speeds as fast as 55 mph; to win, says project manager and Caltech staff member David van Gogh, the car will need to average between 25 and 30 mph. "It's an historic opportunity," he says, "similar to the crossing of the Atlantic by Lindbergh."

That's because, while autonomous vehicles have driven successfully on paved highways, none has done so off-road, at high speed. The Caltech vehicle, a 1996 Chevrolet Tahoe 4x4 (nicknamed "Bob"), will be equipped with navigational software from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's lead center for robotic exploration of the solar system. That software is used on slow-moving planetary rovers, like the ones currently en route to Mars. It will have to be refined for this race, which is the responsibility of the students, who over the summer are engaged full time in making Bob race-ready for the March 13, 2004, starting gun. The race will leave from an as-yet undisclosed location somewhere near Los Angeles and follow a course that won't be announced until two hours before the race begins.

The students, selected last spring, are divided into three teams: computing (hardware and software), sensors, and mechanical infrastructure. Bob's interior has already been stripped; a batch of computers will be installed in the rear, suspended in air to avoid jolts. A spare gas tank will be installed, and the tires have been filled with a special foam to prevent a dreaded flat. Actuators--mechanical devices for controlling steering, acceleration, and braking--are also being installed; as is vision in the form of stereo cameras, infrared sensors, and lasers that will give Bob a three-dimensional view of the road. Last, global positioning software will provide the vehicle with the "big picture" of its desert environment.

It is a demanding race. Bob will have to avoid rocks, gullies, and other race cars, and must navigate over so-called "whoop-de-doos"--washboard-like ruts on a dirt road that any off-roader will tell you are challenging for a human to drive over, let alone a camera and a computer. The vehicles also have to stay within a defined corridor that will vary in width from tens of feet to possibly miles. There will be a series of checkpoints every car must pass through while en route.

It is a student-run event, with the undergraduates, mostly sophomores, making the decisions. Advice and oversight is provided, however, by experts from both Caltech, JPL, and Northrop-Grumman--"Sanity checks," says van Gogh.

The fastest team to complete the race in less than 10 hours will win the $1 million prize. (If the Caltech team wins, the money will go to an undergraduate student fund.) DARPA imposed the time constraint to push the limits of existing technologies. The prize will be available through 2007, so if no one wins the first time out, two more race days will be available.

The total cost of the Caltech project is estimated to be several hundred thousand dollars; a number of corporate donors have contributed equipment to the Caltech team. DARPA is sponsoring the challenge to encourage innovation in driverless technology, which the Department of Defense believes will be critical to future military endeavors. Because it wants to support creativity, DARPA has placed few restrictions on the type of vehicle, though it expects most will be modifications of existing 4x4s.

""The keys are the software and the integration of all these different components to work together," says van Gogh. There have been several field trials to date, at California's El Mirage dry bed lake, the others in the parking lot of the Santa Anita race track, not far from the Caltech campus. Media are welcome to attend future test runs; for details, call Caltech media relations, (626) 395-3227.

Contact: Mark Wheeler (626) 395-8733

Visit the Caltech Media Relations Website at


Written by Marcus Woo