DARPA Autonomous Vehicle Research And Self-Driving Cars

Home of DARPA

Aerial view of The Pentagon, home of DARPA

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been on the cutting edge of innovating homeland security since the age of Sputnik, but the DARPA autonomous vehicle research is prompting a collaboration among different industries committed to changing how consumers (not just the military) travel in the decades to come.

As soon as the Russian satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957, the United States was on high alert. It is that momentous event that led to the creation of one of the most innovative agencies in the Federal government, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which, at the time simply went by Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) —the “D” wouldn’t be added until 1972—was assembled to push America to be leaders of strategic technologies rather than play catch-up. In the decades since its inception, DARPA has gone on to influence and initiate projects that have moved homeland security forward in unique and singular ways as well as establishing benchmark technologies that forever changed the face of the world. Recently, DARPA autonomous vehicle research laid the groundwork for the self-driving cars that are creating a new way of consumer travel across a variety of key industries, and thanks to them, momentum is building.

A government agency on the cutting edge

From the day it was created in 1958, DARPA has been pushing the boundaries of technology and innovation. It initiated rocket research that same year and turned over the information it gathered to create the Television and Infrared Observation Satellites (TIROS) Program to NASA in 1959, which would become the basis for today’s global weather forecasting, reporting and researching by the Department of Defense (DoD), NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAO).

DARPA’s purpose

While the agency’s focus is and always has been national security and the technologies developed are heavily military and government based, DARPA’s overarching goal is to push technology forward in a global sense. The group has been instrumental in the advancement of some of the most critical innovations and technologically advanced inventions in the world. Among these are the internet—which began life as ARPAnet back in the 1960s—the GPS and the computer mouse.

DARPA is constantly changing and innovating, never staying with one team for too long in order to remain nimble and fresh. Part of that fluidity is to create access to its tools for universities, industries and small businesses in addition to the armed forces. The agency’s goal is to constantly move forward by addressing real world concerns, strategically and practically. While the bulk of its research is centered around defending the country and creating better ways to arm and support the military, DARPA makes its technologies and findings available across all manner of divisions—universities, small businesses, industry and the public—as well as encouraging input and proposals from those same communities. In the words of the organization’s website, DARPA “works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the Nation’s military Services, which work with DARPA to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options.”

And that is where the role of DARPA autonomous vehicle research in the creation of the self-driving car comes in.

The story of The Grand Challenges

In the early 2000s, Congress gave DARPA a mandate—implement unmanned vehicles into the military by 2015. Making actual working self-driving cars and transportation had been a quest since the days of Leonardo da Vinci and while the unmanned Mars Exploration Rovers from NASA would be launched in 2003, nothing sustainable for broader, everyday use had come to fruition as yet. To successfully pursue DARPA autonomous vehicle research, the agency felt it needed to do something more than go through the usual internal swirling of ideas or discovery process. This whole idea of pushing the boundaries of autonomous vehicle technology required inspiring and pushing the envelope in a wholly unique way. DARPA did this by creating a contest and inviting a variety of great minds to use their skills and imagination to come up with different solutions from which to choose the best possible features. The organization asked for and received Congressional approval for the event and sent out a broad net to the academic and engineering community to participate. This became a seminal moment in the self-driving car movement.

The First Grand Challenge

On July 30, 2002, DARPA took over The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, attracting hundreds of techies and observers, to announce The First DARPA Grand Challenge. The object of the contest was to create an autonomous robotic vehicle that could complete an as-yet-to-be-determined 150-200 mile course between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for a $1 million prize. The terrain was to reflect the desert conditions of places like Fallujah where U.S. troops were engaging in combat. By the time of the actual challenge on March 13, 2004, 15 vehicles of the original 21 qualifiers were deemed road ready on a 142-mile gruelling course across the Mojave Desert between Barstow, California and just across the border of Nevada in Primm. All of the finalists used a combination of sensors, robotics and cameras to make their dream of an autonomous ground vehicle a reality. Unfortunately, out of those that ran the course, the furthest any of them got was the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Red Team car, which traveled 7.4 miles of the course. A successful robotic car would remain elusive and the prize money unclaimed.

The Second Grand Challenge

Photo by DARPA via Wikimedia Commons

Stanford Red Team, “Stanley,” winner of the Second Grand Challenge

But neither DARPA nor the contestants were daunted. The agency was heartened by the commitment shown by the different participants and announced the Second DARPA Grand Challenge a day later. This time it was to be a 132-mile course to be run, once again, through the Mojave Desert in the Autumn of 2005 with a prize of $2 million to the winning crew. Teams took what they learned in the first challenge and reworked their vehicles, incorporating various sensors, cameras and more to prepare. 195 teams entered and 5 successfully finished with Stanford University’s Red Team winning with their “Stanley” robotic car and earning the prize money. Now that the academic, engineering and tech community had shown a proficiency with navigating the difficult desert terrain outlined in the course, DARPA put its mind around how to encourage autonomous vehicle innovation on city streets.

The DARPA Urban Challenge

Carnegie Melon’s Tartan team wins DARPA Urban Challenge. Photo by Rob NREC via Wikimedia Commons

The third robotic vehicle challenge was conducted in 2007 and called The DARPA Urban Challenge. The call to action now required driverless vehicles to be able to navigate a complicated course on a staged environment in Victorville, California in which they would need to move through traffic and obstacles while obeying California traffic laws. Again, the prize money was $2 million. 11 teams entered and 6 finished. The “Tartan Racing” team from Carnegie Mellon University placed in first, taking the prize money and all that had been learned through each challenge to start serious research on making self-driving cars a reality for all.

Influencing unmanned vehicle innovation for all

These races sparked the imaginations of the engineering and automotive community in an expansive way. Virginia Tech, one of the finalists in the urban challenge, went on to collaborate with TORC, a company founded by alumni of the Virginia Tech robotics department, to create Grand Unmanned Support Surrogates (GUSS) for the U.S. Marine Corps. The autonomous ground vehicle is designed for mass casualty evacuations from combat/compromised areas, re-supplying of and carrying heavy loads for troops. Per a 2015 article written by Chris Urmson for the National Academy of Engineering, DARPA’s challenges threw down a gauntlet to the engineering community as a whole to take the innovation inspired by and lessons learned from the grand challenges and bring them to life in the real world. According to Urmson, technology used to develop consumer based autonomous features—LIDAR, radar, camera—were those overarching tools used to meet the DARPA Grand Challenges. While the purpose of these contests was to push forward engineering to meet the Congressional mandate for self-driving cars in the military by 2015, the benefits have been much farther reaching.

In the world of the military, unmanned is not the same as autonomous. Many of the unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) created are remote controlled or tele-operated. However, these machines can get into spots and deal with sensitive situations, such as the active mine removal capability of the Abrams Panther and small space surveillance with the urban robot (URBOT) also known as Urbie, without endangering the lives of soldiers. But, autonomous ground vehicles are making their way out of the armed forces and into the consumer world on a large scale. This is all thanks to the imagination and creativity DARPA autonomous vehicle research inspired and pushed forward with its grand challenges. The urban challenge, in particular, opened up a doorway to seeing how the world of self-driving cars could have everyday implications.

The role of DARPA autonomous vehicle research in the military

Since the first three grand challenges, DARPA has pursued a robotics challenge, a cyber-challenge and is currently ruminating over what next to present to the scientific/technology/engineering community. But the DARPA autonomous vehicle research inspiration has gone far beyond unmanned ground vehicles and the driverless car.

By U.S. Navy, Photo by John Williams

Sea Hunter, the DARPA supported ACTUV

As part of the agency’s focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), it has created the ACTUV or Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel. Its role is to quietly track diesel powered enemy subs through miles of sea for long periods of time without a single crew person aboard. With everything DARPA autonomous vehicle research has prompted, the word “vehicle” is far-reaching and addressing all of the areas that are sensitive to homeland security—land, sea, air and space.

Among these are unmanned aerial vehicles like the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN), a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system that provides consistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) that can engage mobile targets anywhere around the world anytime of the day or night. There is also the dual purpose Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES), which is part of the Transformer TX program. It’s capable of traveling by air and land. It can drop supplies from the air to specific points as well as extract soldiers and casualties from combat zones. But it can also drive on land. It is part of the Vehicle Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Skunk Works project with Lockheed Aircraft and others.

By DARPA via Wikimedia Commons

An artist’s rendering of the HTV-2 in flight

In the realm of space, beyond the unmanned transporters to Mars, there have been the hypersonic technology vehicles (HTV) created through the Falcon project. Both the HTV-1 and the HTV-2 were tested then scrapped, but enough research was compiled to push forward other potential uses and ways to lower costs. These two vessels were unmanned spacecraft that could function without crew and gather information and drop supplies at space stations. Now working under the name of the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) program, these types of vehicles are being considered with the parameters of cost efficiency, feasibility and effectiveness.

Drones are certainly among those unmanned vehicles to be counted as one of the things DARPA’s research has inspired. These small, economical surveillance and delivery systems serve a variety of purposes and have already infiltrated civilian life, for fun and business. But the focus now is on making it possible for UGV’s to transport human beings on a grand scale—the autonomous car and beyond—both in combat and day-to-day life.

DARPA of tomorrow

What the world of tomorrow looks like is anybody’s guess, but DARPA’s role as a leader in advanced technology for homeland security and consumer use is something the organization hopes to maintain. It has a far-reaching grasp on a variety of inventions and research is constant.

As we look ahead to unmanned transport, what DARPA has done to promote the autonomous vehicle technology most of us know today is vast. The Grand Challenges alone created an extraordinary renaissance in self-driving cars and pushed forward highly beneficial unmanned ground, air and sea vessels in the military that have implications for commercial and consumer use. While the agency has become less of a player in the tech world than in its earlier days due to the advances made in Silicon Valley and how DARPA’s initial innovations were made available to so many companies, universities and organizations, the goal has always been to inspire broader growth and forward movement that has global value in addition to protecting the U.S. It is what makes this agency such a unique player on the government stage. Its organizational make up and work practices have prompted countless organizations to imitate them, because the amount of progress made within DARPA is unparalleled. It is a highly influential agency that is as creative as it is regimented. Remaining fluid and nimble is key to its continued success and as the world of the autonomous car becomes even bigger, DARPA will keep in step and, frequently, lead the way.

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The Autonomous Vehicle: A Look Through History

the autonomous vehicle in action

The wave of the future

The autonomous vehicle, or self-driving car, has become the focus of the automotive world. More and more, you hear that the connected car is the answer to a variety of transportation ills. From Google to Volvo to Ford to Uber and Lyft, the industry of moving you from one place to another is working feverishly to make the once science fiction dream of a driverless vehicle a reality. However, this seemingly 21st century innovation has not only been in people’s minds for centuries, but attempts and working prototypes have been pursued across the ages.

What exactly is an autonomous vehicle?

The autonomous vehicle label has become quite the buzz. But what makes a regular, everyday car into a self-driving connected car? An autonomous vehicle is any car that drives itself through a set of computerized controls hardwired into the automobile’s brain or electronic control unit (ECU). The idea has been the stuff of dreams since as far back as the great Leonardo da Vinci with his horseless carriage idea, an invention meant as a novelty to surprise and delight attendants of festivals during renaissance times that would take centuries to figure out how to build.

While there have been several attempts throughout the years to make a self-driving, fully autonomous car come to life, success has been elusive. However, the interest has never wavered and the automotive world and general public became even more energized with a look into the future that sent minds reeling at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

General Motors and dreams of innovation

World's Fair map

Road map for 1939 New York World’s Fair

General Motors (GM) is no stranger to vehicle innovation. It was the first automaker to envision a type of autonomous technology with the presentation of a computerized navigation system for its cars known as Driver Aid, Information and Routing System (DAIR) back in 1966. The ambitious yet unwieldy invention would lead to the creation of OnStar in the 1980s. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that GM presented their idea of the self-driving car at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

The Futurama bird's eye view

The Futurama, GM’s vision

The tagline of the storied pre-World War II extravaganza was “The World of Tomorrow.” Hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the extraordinary promise of a unique and technologically advanced horizon shown throughout the fairgrounds. GM’s pavilion featured the most popular attraction called The Futurama, a ride that took visitors through what life would be like in the year 1960. While the exhibit was more about urban planning and creating a highway system—which wouldn’t become reality until 1956—tiny radio controlled cars that automatically kept their distance from each other were presented on the roads, a precursor to adaptive cruise control and autonomous vehicle technology. This future vision was crafted by mercurial theatre and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes. While 1960 has come and gone and the glorious, smooth driving fully autonomous future has yet to be realized, the commitment to and belief in a driverless world is stronger and more pervasive than ever.

Why self-driving car technology matters?

Driving a car is essential to many people’s lives. Getting behind the wheel of an automobile and transporting yourself, others and supplies or equipment for work, play or charity, have led to the continued—albeit sometimes shaky—growth of what is now a $9 trillion+ automotive industry. The automobile has been in consumer use since Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler created their vehicle empire in 1895 then made even more accessible when Henry Ford turned what was basically a luxury item into something the masses could afford. These horseless carriages have dominated the transportation industry ever since and incorporating autonomous technology to create self-driving cars has been a goal that may well have been prompted by Leonardo’s self-propelled carriage over five centuries ago.

The “Linrrican Wonder,” a 1926 Chandler rigged with a transmitting antenna, became the first documented case of a “driverless car” that same year. It “drove” through the streets of New York City while controlled by a follow vehicle. Having a tracking car may seem to negate the fully autonomous goal of a driverless vehicle, but the Linrrican Wonder maneuvered on a public road in the most populous city in America even back then, giving hope to the automotive industry of a future it continues to fervently pursue to this day.

Huge strides continue to be made in the world of self-driving cars which are propelled by 3 major issues on the road today: traffic congestion, road fatalities and environmental impact. But will driverless cars really alleviate all of these problems?

Alleviating gridlock

autonomous vehicles to help with gridlock

Photo By Hikosaemon via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a two-pronged effect here with autonomous vehicles. Shared self-driving cars lead to less automobiles on the road. Also, operator error causes the bulk of traffic accidents which then leads to even more traffic congestion—slowing down to rubberneck, lane closures, etc. Autonomous vehicle technology incorporates such systems as collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control to create both safer conditions and smart distance between cars.  These two together allow the vehicles to keep pace with and from each other in ways that keep the flow of traffic consistently moving.

Staying alive on the road

autonomous vehicles to address safe driving

2015 saw 35,200 car-related deaths in the U.S. alone. This staggering number has prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to push for policies that more actively regulate self-driving car research and development. Human error accounts for 94% of all fatalities on the highway and implementing innovative vehicle technology in the form of fully autonomous smart cars is felt to be the answer. Again, collision avoidance systems play an integral part in keeping passengers safe and lowering traffic fatalities and accidents in general.

Lower emissions and better fuel efficiency

autonomous vehicles programmed for better fuel efficiency

An autonomous car is designed to be more fuel efficient not only by the mere fact that many use alternative fuels, but the way they travel in conjunction with other vehicles and on the road in general. These vehicles are built to move in such a way that they make the best use of their fuel and brake/accelerate more strategically, thereby reducing whatever gas emissions they produce or drain on a power cell. Traditional and adaptive cruise control (ACC) acts as a strategic partner in supporting this by automatically maintaining an ecologically friendly rate of speed.

The ins and outs of self-driving car technology

What makes a self-driving car drive itself? It’s a combination of a variety of interfaces and connections. Per engineering professor, Sridhar Lakshmanam of University of Michigan—Dearborn, three things are needed to make an everyday vehicle successfully navigate a public road autonomously: a GPS, a system that reads road conditions, and a processor that takes all of that data and turns it into action.

how an autonomous vehicle works

The technology behind autonomous vehicles

The GPS needed is pretty much the same type of system used today. It provides a basic view of maps and where the car can go. Radar and lidar sensors are instrumental in the system that can see road conditions as are on-board cameras.

Radar uses radio waves to distinguish what is going on around the car while a lidar sensor uses lasers to detect the environment, obstacles and more by sending out a series of light pulses at specific intervals to pick up external information. These combine with the on-board cameras to take all of the information of what is going on around the vehicle—the environment and dynamic situations—and send it to the brain so the car can actually react—brake, accelerate, turn, etc.—accordingly.

On-board cameras also contribute to the successful operation of autonomous vehicles. These visually capture the conditions and potential hazards of the road in real time and process that information through sophisticated computer software. The car’s brain then takes that and

Part of this smart communication is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) interaction. The ability for cars to speak with each other will help in making this driverless future a safe reality. Per the National highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) one automobile can relay various “important safety and mobility information” to another, thereby supporting the three goals mentioned above: alleviate gridlock, save lives and lower emissions. And with safe future comes changes to government.

The ups (and downs) of the autonomous vehicle

Due to the nature of less human interaction,  an autonomous vehicle means fewer parking and moving violations, which provide a good chunk of money into local and state agency coffers. However, the safety and strengthening of the transportation systems save government and taxpayers money and lives. The Brookings Institute breaks it down as follows:

  • An estimated $10 billion per year saved by taxpayers due to the public shouldering the bill for seven percent of vehicle crash costs
  • A savings of $100 billion per year due to the elimination of congestion, damages to infrastructure and resources spent on road improvement.
  • Cutting travel times by sending vehicles to better road options which saves on the cost of fixing roadways and bridges
  • An overall estimated savings of $211 billion a year to state, local and federal governments

With all of this possibility, however, it begs the question: just how ready is the public to hand over the controls they’ve come to know with their automobiles?

The steering wheel (gear shift, pedals…): to be or not to be?

will autonomous vehicles need what drivers are used to?

As mentioned, the motor car is the most influential mode of transportation in the world. It is a staple of modern life and a symbol of autonomy, even in its purest form. Part of that comes from the ability of everyday humans to have total control over their automobile by being able to steer it themselves and operate the different gears and pedals to make it run. But in a fully autonomous, self-driving car, is it really necessary to have all of those accouterment?

Per a recent Kelley Blue Book poll, most Americans couldn’t even begin to imagine embracing a fully autonomous vehicle—called a Level 5 by both NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book. 80 percent of those polled believe human drivers need to have the ability to operate their car and 64 percent claimed they need to be the ones driving their automobiles, not some technology. While there are ranges of feelings about actually using the self-driving capability—short jaunts were felt to need operator control while autonomous vehicle technology would be welcome on long road trips—the space for human intervention in the midst of unforeseen circumstances is still felt to be necessary.

Different levels of autonomy

As mentioned, both the NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book have identified 5 stages of autonomy for cars. Both adhere to the levels as outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International. They breakdown as follows:

Level 0: No Automation

The human driver has full control of the car, even if there are upgrades and technological advances in the vehicle. The person behind the wheel is the one who reacts to every situation.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Most of the operation is handled by the driver. Some, however, like braking, can be automatically managed by the car through the data it retrieves from road conditions.

Level 2: Partial Automation

Again, the human controls most aspects of the vehicle, but some things like cruise control or lane correction are automatically handled by the vehicle as well as acceleration and deceleration based on the information gathered about the drive. The person behind the wheel, however, is expected to be the primary operator, managing the rest of the manipulation of the car as well as taking over from the automated functions should the situation arise.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Pretty much every task a driver would perform is handled by an automated system. However, here there is the ability for the human to take control when their intervention is requested by the computer.

Level 4: High Automation

There are still a steering wheel, gas and brake pedal, and a gear shift in this level, but all of the driving is automated and there is a failsafe should the driver fail to engage when the system asks for their assistance.

Level 5: Full Automation

The car is completely automated and prepared to handle all road conditions and situations that can and will arise during the ride. The driver is turned into passenger and their assistance is not requested nor needed.

As you can see, these last three levels move from minimal mechanical driver assistance—a human operator maintains control while the car has certain enhancements to help make their drive smoother and safer— into an area where the vehicle is now actually monitoring the driving environment and reacting automatically. This is a future leap that is available in limited models for Level 3 and in test phase with fleet vehicles in levels 4 and 5 under controlled conditions on public roads —Google self-drive now known as Waymo and Uber, for example.

Paving the road to the future

The road to the future

The initial estimate of when driverless cars will truly be on the road is 2050. However, with Ford embracing the autonomous vehicle movement rather than fighting it, Baidu in California, and much more, “The World of Tomorrow” may be just around the corner. The progress to a more dynamic driverless future is constant, so keep your eyes on the road ahead.

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