U.Va. Engineers' Self-Driving Car, Tommy Jr., Eliminated from National Competition in Semifinal Round

Oct. 31, 2007 — Tommy Jr., the autonomous, robotic car developed by a team of University of Virginia Engineering School students, alumni and faculty, was eliminated from the competition Wednesday in the 2007 Urban Challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The modified Scion xB had been one of 35 semifinalists vying for 20 spots in the finals of the $2 million event being held in Victorville, Calif.

Competing under the sponsorship of “Team Jefferson,” Tommy Jr. ran into problems on the first day of qualifying when the vehicle collided with a hanging railway arm. The collision broke Tommy Jr.’s, windshield, but also caused additional damage that was not fully discovered until later in the qualifying runs, said George Cahen, professor of materials science and engineering, in a telephone interview from the qualifying site.

Once the team was able to identify and repair the damage, it filed a formal appeal with DARPA officials to continue in the qualifying rounds, but that appeal was denied on Wednesday.

“We’re all quite disappointed that we were not able to advance,” Cahen said. “But this is very hard to do. Our team worked extremely hard.

"One thing I learned is the solid character of this team. They’ve been working literally day and night and performed magnificently. It’s a terrific team, and it has been an excellent learning experience."

Tommy Jr. was among a wave of entrants that were eliminated from the competition in advance of Saturday’s finals. Teams from Princeton, Georgia Tech, Cal Tech and the University of Florida were among those eliminated.

“We do have a state representative still in the field, since Virginia Tech’s car has advanced to the finals,” Cahen said.

Tommy Jr. was outfitted with advanced software by U.Va. electrical engineering alumnus Paul J. Perrone and his Crozet-based company, Perrone Robotics. The car was equipped with advanced software that amalgamates several data streams supplied by a commercially available Global Positioning System — a stereo vision system, four laser range finders and a radar. That allows Tommy Jr. to “see” up to 250 feet in all directions with precision of up to half an inch.

Cahen said that the competition in this challenge was significantly more difficult than the team had faced in the 2005 event.

“We knew that going into it,” he said. “It required a great deal more software and sensors. This time we were having to deal with dynamic as well as static obstacles, and that adds a level of difficulty.”

Cahen was referring to the fact that the robots were required to maneuver through a course that had a variety of stationary obstacles, but also included manned vehicles that simulated actual traffic conditions.

Cahen said that the Team Jefferson had not been prepared for the presence of an object that would be hanging over the roadway, having been told that all obstacles would be ground-based. But that railway arm was Tommy Jr.’s undoing.

“As it turns out that collision not only broke Tommy Jr.’s windshield, but it also broke several other things that it took a couple of days to identify and resolve,” Cahen said. “The day after this occurred, we had to compete in two other qualifying events. Our performance deteriorated below what we had seen. We did finally identify the issues and resolved them. The collateral damage to the car included a broken wire in a cable of wires and an alignment issue on a laser. Once we identified this issues, we were worked to make the repairs and wish we could have continued on.”

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.

Cahen added that the work done on Tommy Jr. is not just for the competition but involves a type of technology that will eventually find its place in any number of activities.

Throughout the competition, team member Mike Woosley kept a blog on the Team Jefferson site which gives a day-by-day description of the competition.

Blog Entry for Oct. 31

Blog Entry for Oct. 30

Blog Entry for Oct. 29

Blog Entry for Oct. 28 

Blog Entry for Oct. 26

Media Contact