Self-driving car reaches DARPA competition finals
Prospect 11 — the completely autonomous vehicle designed by a group of Princeton engineering students — has qualified for the finals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) competition, contest organizers announced Wednesday at a ceremony in Fontana, Calif.
The modified GMC Canyon pickup will compete Saturday against 22 other autonomous vehicles, all of which navigate without a driver or remote control, at the DARPA Grand Challenge in the Mojave Desert near Primm, Nevada.
Eight students from the Prospect 11 team have been in California this week competing against 42 other teams in the semifinals. Those vehicles were selected from among 195 entrants through a series of qualifying events and in-person site visits during the past six months.
DARPA, a branch of the Department of Defense, is offering a $2 million grand prize to the team that designs the unmanned vehicle that completes the 150-mile desert obstacle course the fastest within 10 hours.
"I'm simply overwhelmed with pride about what these undergraduates have created," ORFE professor and team adviser Alain Kornhauser said. "Prospect 11 wasn't only competitive; on some measures, it was among the very best."
Competition finalists were named at the conclusion of a week-long semifinal known as the National Qualification Event, held at the California Speedway. Kornhauser and the students arrived at the track last Tuesday and spent the week monitoring their vehicle as it completed a series of five trial runs.
"We didn't really know what to expect from the other teams, but we've all been pleasantly surprised by how well we've done," team member Gordon Franken '08 said in a phone interview.
For the semifinal competition, teams had to rely solely on onboard technology to wind through roughly two-mile courses designed to resemble desert conditions. Out of the five trials the Prospect 11 truck completed on the speedway, two were nearly perfect, Kornhauser said.
"Even Dean Malkiel would have given Prospect 11 an A plus for its performance on its final run yesterday when all the chips were on the line," Kornhauser said. The truck passed all gates, avoided all obstacles and crossed the finish line in 12 minutes.
The story was different on the second run, however, as the truck ploughed over cones and rammed into a van just seconds after beginning the course.
Despite the mishap — which was caused by a problem with the vehicle's GPS system — Prospect 11 has actually performed better than most people anticipated, the team said.
"A lot of teams here viewed us as the underdog," Franken said. "Most people didn't expect much from us, but with that first run, we really opened some eyes and proved something."
While most of the teams competing in California use laser technology to guide their vehicles, Prospect 11 is one of only two to use stereo visual equipment, Kornhauser said. Many of the other teams competing have benefited from outside funding and human resources, he added.
"We're really the only undergraduate team here," he said. "We did this for the academic value. It's not about the Grand Challenge, it's about the learning that's going on for the students."
The Prospect 11 team — which includes Franken, Brendan Collins '08, Scott Schiffres '06, Bryan Cattle '07, Anand Atreya '07, Kamil Choudhury '06, Andrew Saxe '08 and Josh Herbach '08 — has done little besides work on the vehicle and eat out, Franken said.
This work ethic is the reason Prospect 11 will be competing for the grand prize, Kornhauser said. "The kids have just been absolutely phenomenal," he said. "Now it's on to Primm [for the final] to earn another A plus."
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