While Formula E fans and autonomous race enthusiasts eagerly await the arrival of the RoboRace series, the ground-breaking debut of the completely autonomous championship will have arrived nine years after being beaten to the punch by the DARPA Urban Challenge.
In 2001, in response to a growing number of casualties from roadside bombings in foreign war zones, the U.S. Congress decreed one-third of the military’s ground vehicles should be unmanned by 2015. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was given the task of seeking out companies that could fulfil the lofty brief.
DARPA approached several defence contractors, but without producing any pragmatic results, the branch chose the unorthodox route of funding a robot race.
Titled the DARPA Urban Challenge, the course consisted of a 60-mile autonomous marathon across a varied city landscape, complete with traffic signs, obstacles and other self-driving and human-operated vehicles. DARPA engaged with academics and engineers across the globe, with close to 100 teams expressing interest.
The exercise was a first for autonomous vehicles (and their engineers) competing on unfamiliar roads, navigate simulated traffic, and being able to improvise accordingly.
Stanford University’s vehicle, nicknamed “Junior,” finished first, however Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle, “Boss,” ended up earning – albeit fractionally - the best track time. As such, the team were awarded the winning title and project funding.
Depending on how RoboRace progresses, it’s conceivable that DARPA’s Urban Challenge could pave the way for the world’s first autonomous rally challenge.