U.Va. Engineers’ Self-Driving Car to Hit the City Streets in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge

Aug. 9, 2007 — A team of University of Virginia Engineering School students, alumni and faculty and their competitive entry — an autonomous, robotic car named “Tommy Jr.” — have advanced to the semi-finals of the 2007 Urban Challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), agency director, Tony Tether, announced in a Webcast today (Aug. 9).

Known as "Team Jefferson," the U.Va. entry is one of only 36 teams selected from the original 138 teams hoping to compete for a $2 million top prize in the world’s only driver-less car race November 3. The 36-semi-finalists will compete in the national qualification event Oct. 26-31 with the top 20 teams advancing to the Nov. 3 finals.

“We are extremely excited and proud to have made it because we are one of the smaller teams,” says George Cahen, U.Va. professor of materials science and engineering and Team Jefferson faculty adviser. “The team has been working very hard and smart to get us here.”

To be held at an urban military training facility located on the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., the 2007 Urban Challenge requires participating vehicles to autonomously traverse 60 miles of challenging urban traffic conditions, demonstrating maneuvers such as stopping at an intersection, merging with traffic, parallel parking, avoiding debris or obstacles in the road, and obeying traffic laws like right-of-way, all while avoiding collisions with the other cars traveling on the course (including one built from a giant industrial dump truck that, with even a slight bump, could incapacitate Tommy Jr.).

Tommy Jr., a modified Scion xB, is up to the challenge.

Team lead and U.Va. electrical engineering graduate Paul J. Perrone and his Crozet-based company, Perrone Robotics, have outfitted Tommy Jr. with advanced software that amalgamates several data streams supplied by the car’s commercially available Global Positioning System — a stereo vision system, four laser range finders and a radar — so that the car can “see” up to 250 feet in all directions with precision of up to half an inch. This navigational system enables Tommy Jr. to recognize road lanes, intersections and obstacles like construction cones and other vehicles; Perrone Robotics’ general-purpose robotics operating system and platform software, trade named “MAX,” dictates how to respond to the myriad possible conditions.

“Fifteen years ago this summer, I first entered the U.Va. graduate engineering program, under the guidance of Barry Johnson, studying safety systems that would lend themselves to automated trains,” says Perrone. “It is tremendously rewarding to now be working with U.Va. engineering students of the highest caliber, building completely self-driving automobiles, something I would never have thought possible just a few years ago. Without a doubt, U.Va.'s Engineering School genuinely prepared me — as well as the students and other alumni on the team — for this day.”

"Team Jefferson is a great example of the many experiential learning opportunities our students are exposed to at the U.Va. Engineering School," says James H. Aylor, dean of the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science. "And the students — and alumni -- on Team Jefferson are a terrific testament to the fact that we are educating leaders in a variety of applied, cutting-edge areas of engineering and beyond. The team has done an outstanding engineering job, especially considering the limited funds that this team had relative to many other teams."

In the Urban Challenge, Team Jefferson is hoping to build on its success in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, which required teams to create self-driving vehicles that could traverse 132 miles across the Mojave Desert in Nevada. Team Jefferson’s entry — a silver egg-shaped dune buggy named “Tommy,” built on a very small budget — was among the semi-finalists in the 40-car field, chosen from 195 applicants.

“It was an important step to have autonomous ground vehicles that can navigate and drive across open and difficult terrain from city to city,” DARPA Director Tether testified to the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year. “But the next big leap will be an autonomous vehicle that can navigate and operate in traffic, a far more complex challenge for a ‘robotic’ driver. So this November we are very excited to be moving from the desert to the city with our Urban Challenge.”

The research and development wing of the U.S. Department of Defense, DARPA sponsors the Challenge as part of the Pentagon’s effort to comply with a congressional mandate requiring one-third of military ground vehicles to be unmanned by 2015.

About the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science

Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University’s highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology. For more information, visit the School of Engineering and Applied Science Web site.