More than 20 University undergraduates and six professors are constructing an autonomous vehicle that can navigate a 60-mile simulated urban driving course in less than six hours.
The team hopes to enter the car in next November's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge, continuing a Princeton tradition at the competition.
In the past, the challenge has required competitors to navigate self-driven vehicles along a 132-mile route through the Mojave Desert, riddled with both natural and man-made obstacles. This year, the challenge will ask competitors to navigate a simulated urban course, complete with lanes, intersections and traffic circles.
"They're basically going to build a fake city," said Anand Atreya '07, a member of the team and an associate editor of design for The Daily Princetonian. "They're going to hire some professional drivers to act as regular people."
Princeton has been involved in the DARPA Grand Challenges since 2004, when members of Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering (PAVE) began building a vehicle known as the Prospect 11 — a donated GMC Canyon pickup truck — to enter in the 2005 competition.
Despite the budget constraint of only $125,000 — roughly five percent of what top-ranking teams Stanford and Carnegie Mellon spent — the Prospect 11 ranked 10th after completing nine-and-a-half miles. The car fared better than the entries from the California Institute of Technology and Cornell.
Princeton's was also the only team comprised solely of undergraduates to make it to the semifinals in 2005.
"Money-wise, we're able to access some research funds in the endowment, but they're limited," said Jonathan Mayer '09, a member of the team contributing to the architecture, hardware and navigation systems on the car.
"We've been very fortunate to have some generous corporate sponsors in the past, and we're hoping to partner with even more for the Urban Challenge."
Though past winners have been awarded a prize of two million dollars, Congress has revoked DARPA's authority to grant monetary prizes. This year's winners will be awarded a trophy instead.
"But there will likely be progress grants to those that are invited to the Qualifying Event and to the Final Event," said operations research and financial engineering professor Alain Kornhauser, an adviser of the team who has been involved with PAVE since the birth of the DARPA Grand Challenge on campus. "We are not doing it for the money."
Several endowment funds, generous alumni and local area corporations have also expressed their support of PAVE through donations.
"We're pretty unique as a team. We're not a defense contractor, and we're not a major research group. We're some undergrads who love what we do. And we're good at it," Mayer said. "The team did very well at the 2005 Challenge, and we're looking forward to even more success in the 2007 Urban Challenge."
For 2007, PAVE members are hoping to acquire a mid-sized SUV as a donation from an automobile company. The final vehicle will be built in the garage of the E-Quad and later tested at West Windsor fields and the Forrestal campus.
The vehicle, which will be primarily vision-based, will have two GPS receivers for locating the car with relation to the course, stereo camera pairs for looking behind and in front of the vehicle, single cameras for viewing the sides of the car and proximity sensors for monitoring blind spots.
Additionally, the team will have to automate the steering wheel, brakes, gear change and throttle.
"'Incredible' doesn't begin to describe what working with PAVE is like," Mayer said. "It's really tough at times — we have a lot of responsibilities to take on. But there's nothing else like it."