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DARPA selects 11 robotic grunts to take driver's license test

Shudder. Have you seen R2D2 parallel park?

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DARPA applied a firm hand when narrowing down the list of robot vehicles that can take place in the weekend's $3.5m Urban Challenge. The organization - an arm of the US Defense Department - has deemed only 11 out of 35 competing teams as worthy to take place in the final event.

The teams have spent the past week showing off their so-called autonomous vehicles at a retired Air Force Base in Victorville, California - a small city near Los Angeles. And DARPA has not been joking around with the test runs. The vehicles have been forced to perform tasks such as parking, passing slower vehicles and even merging with oncoming traffic.

These skills prove far more demanding than those required of vehicles during DARPA's past robot races. In 2004 and 2005 events, the unmanned machines had to make their way at top speed across desert courses where the major hurdles included avoiding boulders and ditches. The vehicles were and are guided by GPS coordinates, along with a host of sending gear such as radar, lasers and fancy software.

Stanford University won the 2005 event and has again made it to the finals of the Urban Challenge. Carnegie-Mellon University - another strong competitor - has made the finals as well. On the corporate front, Oshkosh Truck - a maker of massive vehicles - has garnered a spot in the finals. Team Oshkosh was one of five to finish the 2005 race. No vehicle made it more than a few miles in the 2004 race.

Other finalists include teams from Cornell Univeristy, MIT and Honeywell/Intelligent Vehicle Solutions.

TeamUCF made the event and described the selection showdown.

The first announcement that they made was that there would be only 11 teams in the finals. That was a far cry from the 20 teams they expected … and worse, 6 of the 11 were already known. The crowd was very quiet when this announcement was made. That left 5 slots for about 15 good teams, all of which were in the audience.

These slots went (in order) to MIT, TeamUCF, AnnieWay, Honeywell/IVS and Oskosh which were added to CMU, Stanford, Ben Franklin (UPenn), Carolo, Cornell, and Virginia Tech. Of the 11 finalists, 8 had received the “Track A” award of $1M to build their car. Only three of us, AnnieWay, Corolo, and TeamUCF did not and of those only 1 is from the US.

DARPA seems to have this robot race stuff down and is looking to keep the field tight in order to avoid past disappointments.

From what we've seen so far, these are some very impressive vehicles and Saturday's race looks to be a show stopper.

The cars will have six hours to go around a 60-mile course, preforming a variety of tasks. All told, they will have suffered through the equivalent of a California driver's license test. [Please hold your jokes. Oh, what the hell, fire away - Ed]

As DARPA tells it,

From the time each robotic vehicle leaves its starting chute and begins the course, it is entirely under control of its onboard mission computer - human observers may intervene only for purposes of safety. The entire field of robotic vehicles will be on the course at the same time, interacting with one another as vehicles in urban areas across America do each day. The vehicles will face driving challenges that include traffic circles, merges, four-way intersections, blocked roads, parking, passing slower moving vehicles, and merging safely with traffic on two- and four-lane roads.

We'll have live coverage on Saturday. ®

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