TodayApril 17, 2022

2005 DARPA Grand Challenge

Stanford versus Carnegie Mellon

DARPA starts. The best minds in the best Universities have come together for the ultimate challenge; to drive a vehicle over mountainous terrain with no driver. This is not an unmanned vehicle like the Predator or Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle. This is Artificial Intelligence, but I get ahead of myself.

At first, this seems like just another University experiment. A bunch of geeky yahoos getting together to see who can out-geek the other person. I would liken it to the Bubba yahoos that get together every weekend to see who can make the most left turns the fastest, you know, NASCAR or Formula One.

But take a look at the sponsors and the group putting on the race and paying out the purse. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DOD). There has never been a purse won by any other car race, that I know of, that has paid $2,000,000 for one day of racing.

What is DARPA?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). DARPA’s mission is to leverage ingenuity and research to develop transformational technologies that give our armed forces a decisive edge.

The military is looking for a group that can develop technology that will help transform the battlefield. This makes it no longer just a game, but it still has all the aspects of a car race. Let’s look; we have a car, sponsors, pit crew, and a driver. Each one of those is competing against very qualified competitors every week. Ferrari is known as the king of Formula One. They don’t race and pay Michael Schumacher the big bucks just to win the Formula One race. They do it for bragging rights. They do it for “race on Sunday, buy on Monday.” They do it for every colloquial phrase you can think of, including “We Are the Champions.”

The two contenders were Highlander, the Hummer, and Stanley, the Volkswagen. You know just from the names that Stanley is going to win. Really, who wouldn’t want Herbie or any other -ey to win. It’s like the geek with glasses gone wild. You can’t do a wave and yell “Highlander”; it just doesn’t sound right. A sea of blue shirts doing a rave wave yelling “Stanley, Stanley,” now that’s loveable, a regular Volkswagen bug lover. Of course, just like in every other game all the competitors say nice things about each other, and the sponsors and the pit crew and their bosses. Drawback the curtain and the chest-thumping is there and the losers – yes, losers – are hanging their heads and making sure others know that at one time the winner was their student. But that sophomoric behavior is just on the University level. It heats up on the real battlefield.

We’re talking military, we’re talking big bucks. The military spends mega-bucks, in the Billions (with a B), for military defense. The armory the military possesses currently could kill the world five times over (no, that is not a scientific statement – geeks!). Now they want to try to do it without killing their own. A noble feat indeed. Hence the reason for sponsoring a robotic race that takes the people out of the vehicles.

Carnegie Mellon was the University of Highlander, the number one robot on the pole. Many of Highlander’s sponsors are winners of big military contracts. Big names such as Boeing Company, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), AM General. You get the jest, a Hummer from AM General and all the intelligence Boeing and SAIC could supply.

Stanford's artificial intelligence department
Stanford’s artificial intelligence department at DARPA

Stanford University was the University of Little ole Stanley. Stanley was a Volkswagen Touareg that till now has not been respected as a people’s car. This is where the fun comes in; you’ve got Stanford’s artificial intelligence department, Volkswagens Touareg, and red bull, the mega-caffeine drink, as some of the major sponsors.

Can you imagine being Boeing or AM General or SAIC and going to work the next day? Explaining to the big boss, the one that talks to the military about new contracts that a VW beat you. What do you say? AM General contracts to sell the military Humvees for use on the battlefield. What does the AM General boss say to the Army’s Tank, Automotive, Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) when they go in for another round of requests for proposals (RFP)? Right now, this very moment, the military has an RFP out for light and medium trucks. AM General has their RFPs in for consideration.

Carnegie Mellon's Red Whittaker and Stanford's
DARPA – Red and Sebastian

DARPA bragging rights

No bragging rights for AM General. THEY WERE BEAT BY A VOLKSWAGEN! Of course AM General will say it was because of the software, not that their vehicle is bigger, wider with a wider stance. Nothing about Volkswagens’s control, stability, and differential split. This, of course, means that the competition goes to Carnegie Mellon and Stanford. (It should be noted that Google, a company started by a couple of Stanford alums, sponsored Carnegie Mellon’s car). The East Coast Provincials vs. the Silly Valley originators. Red Whittaker, a seemingly intellectual attack dog vs. Sebastian Thrun, the Mahatma Gandhi of robots. It was best summed up by my eight-year-old neighbor, Taylor.

Taylor came by after I got home from the race. She was going door-to-door to get people to sponsor her for a jogathon to fund her school’s library. Little Taylor is above intelligence for an eight-year-old, so when she asked me where I had been, I explained the race to her. “This wasn’t a race where the vehicles were unmanned. There was no one in the vehicle and no one steering the cars. These cars could only travel with the software programs that were created by the Universities and GPS settings.” Oh, Taylor said, “Like a car that has been bewitched” in her little Harry Potter voice.

“But, Lou Ann how could they afford it? Didn’t it cost a lot of money?” I answered, yes, but the companies had sponsors and started to explain what a sponsor was, “Oh, like the people who give me money for jogging to help pay for the library. But, who figured out how to do it and how did they do it?”

Trying to explain artificial intelligence isn’t easy. It’s something that is above my understanding. I could only tell Taylor that the incredibly smart people at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence department took over a year to figure out obstacles and program software to make the Volkswagen Toured travel all by itself over mountains, missing obstacles, in the desert to win $2,000,000 for their University.

In the next moment, Taylor summed up everything Stanford and every other University had worked so hard to hear. The words that made everything they had done in the year and a half worth it.

“I want to go to Stanford.”

Better start drinking your red bull.

Stanford's Stanley at the finish line
Stanford’s Stanley is at the finish line. for DARPA
Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.

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