Yesterday, on the Stanford University campus, researchers unveiled Stanford’s third generation autonomous vehicle, a modified Audi TTS. Unlike Stanley, the university’s first generation self-driving car, and Junior, the second generation autonomous vehicle, this latest model won’t be competing against entries from other teams for millions of dollars in prize money, for the era of challenges sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is over. Too bad for the Stanford researchers, because Stanford did well in the past, placing first in 2005 with Stanley and second in 2007 with Junior, both developed in cooperation with Volkswagen of America.
“The challenges were exciting,” said David Stavens, a PhD student in computer science who co-designed Stanley. “They inspired us to come together and advance the field.” And he will miss them. But on the plus side, without specific criteria and deadlines to meet, researchers now, Stavens said, “have a moment to step back and look at the whole problem,” which may lead to new insights. And, for Stavens personally, he’ll finally get to focus on writing his Ph.D. thesis and graduating.
Stavens did hint that some of the former competitors may be coming together to figure out a way to fill the vacuum created by Darpa stepping out of the autonomous vehicle challenge business, but couldn’t be convinced to say more.
Stanford’s latest autonomous vehicle, pictured above and right, is designed for the racetrack, not city streets. It zips along at the highest speeds it can manage and still stay in control. The sensors and algorithms built to do this will, researchers hope, eventually enable ordinary cars to operate more safely by knowing their limits and forcing drivers to stay within them.
The car will go through its paces live tomorrow as part of the dedication of the new Vehicle Automotive Innovation Laboratory at Stanford’s School of Engineering. Volkswagen Group of America donated $5.75 million to fund the lab, including $2 million for the building and $750,000 a year for five years to fund research and teaching.