This car drives itself

(but does it crank up the radio when no one is watching?)

JuniorSRT_small.jpg

On a sunny June morning in Silicon Valley, a new driver took his first driving test. And while it sure felt like watching my learning-to-drive teen carefully negotiate the family car around a deserted parking lot, this Volkswagon Passat cruising the parking lot of Mountain Viewâ''s Shoreline Amphitheater was something quite different. Because it was driving itself.

A brisk breeze off the bay cooled the crowd of observers as VW pulled up to the four-way stop. Another car was already there. A third car arrived from a different direction. The VW waited while the first car made a turn.

A group of observers held its collective breath, waiting to see if the VW would move forward next, or if it would wait for the third car to go out of turn. The crowd burst into applause when the VW did indeed move forward, soon followed by the third car. Download video

The VW, codenamed Junior, is an autonomous vehicle designed for the upcoming Urban Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). This, the third in a series of Grand Challenge competitions for autonomous vehicles, will go forward on November 3 at a location yet to be announced. The winning team collects US$2 million; second place is $1 million and third $500,000. But first potential challengersâ''there are 53--have to qualify by passing a series of tests administered by DARPA representatives. Junior passed with only one mistake.

Juniorâ''s pretty smart, and heâ''s got better vision than most drivers. Mike Montemerlo, a member of the Stanford Racing Team, gave me a tour of Juniorâ''s sensors. Download video Junior can look 200 meters ahead and behind with two lidars mounted on the front and two more on the back of the car. He does a 360-degree scan with a high definition lidar mounted on top of the car 15 times a secondâ''that one sees 65 meters in the distance, while two more lidars stare down at the lane markers. And heâ''s not afraid to ask for directions; heâ''s got several GPS receivers that place him on the map with an accuracy of about 50 centimeters.

He is probably more cautious than most human drivers. â''He drives like my grandma,â'' commented one spectator. And this caution got him into a bit of trouble.

The qualifying tests were in three categories: an emergency stop, which tests the only remote control feature of the car; a navigation test, in which the car follows a programmed route selected by Darpa, staying in its lanes, stopping at stop signs, and making U-turns successfully; and traffic, in which Darpa representatives find out if the contending car can deal with other cars on the road, including following a moving car and negotiating a four-way stop.

Junior passed the first two tests handily. In the traffic segment of the evaluation, Junior was brilliant at four-way stops. However, in an attempt to pass a stopped car, Junior froze. The problem, it turned out, was that one of the cones marking the boundaries of the course had been set a little out of line, and Junior, calculating that it didnâ''t have enough room to pass safely, decided to wait. Forever, if need be; artificial drivers are apparently a lot more patient than real ones. (In this case, until a human driver hit override on the autonomous driving system.) The Darpa representatives allowed Junior to retake this portion of the test, and the car passed.

Meanwhile, in an adjacent parking lot, Junior 2 took this visitor for a ride; Junior 2 is operating with limited smarts; heâ''s got fewer sensors hooked up, so while he can follow a preset course he canâ''t yet deal with traffic. Eventually, Juniorâ''s smarts will be moved over to Junior 2, so a presumably less dented Passat will represent Stanford in the finals. I was only a little nervous; a member of the Stanford development team sat in the driverâ''s chair. His hands stayed off the controls, but he was ready to slam the emergency disable button just in case Junior 2 ran amok.

While the DARPA officials have yet to announce whether or not Junior made the cut, Stanford team members were pleased with his performance and expect to move forward to the national qualifying event, to be held in October. Up next for me; 40 hours on the road with a newly permitted 15-year-old driver behind the wheel. Iâ''m thinking driving with Junior will turn out to have been a lot less nerve-wracking.

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