A very special Volkswagen Touareg completed a 130-mile cross-desert race in record time winning one of the worlds toughest automotive challenges. But there was no podium celebration or champagne for the driver - the global competition was for hi-tech driverless cars.
The product of a collaboration between the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) and Stanford University, the winning Touareg (nicknamed ‘Stanley’) covered the course in 6 hours, 53 minutes and 8 seconds - 11 minutes and 42 seconds faster than the nearest finisher.
A total of 23 vehicles began the challenge which took place over 130-miles of desert roads, mountain trails, dry lakebeds and tunnels using only on-board sensors and satellite navigation equipment with no human assistance. The course was revealed on the morning of the start and rules stipulate it must be completed in under 10 hours - the Touareg managed this easily with over three hours to spare.
The mobile laboratory, Stanley, navigated the course using countless devices - numerous sensors around the vehicle tell the seven networked Pentium motherboards with 1.6 GHz processors what the vehicle is doing. Simultaneously, laser detectors, stereo visual equipment and short range 24-GHz radar systems link to the millimetre accurate Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system.
The networked processors combine all the data to produce the quickest and safest route for the vehicle. This information is fed to newly developed ‘drive by wire’ systems operating the brakes, accelerator and steering.
Electronics apart, the standard Touareg was more than up to the rugged Mojave terrain, the only differences being underbody protection plates and uprated suspension dampers.
The Grand Challenge hails from the Pentagon and the US Department of Defense offer a $2million prize for the winning vehicle. The first Grand Challenge ran in 2004 with a $1million prize. Despite some strong entries, not one vehicle finished the inaugural race; the furthest travelling vehicle managed just over seven miles.
The research involved in creating Stanley will lead directly to safer and more responsive assistance systems for Volkswagen vehicles, rather than a completely autonomous vehicle. The aim is to make driving even safer in the future. Components used within Stanley are not far removed from current vehicle technology - the short-range radar system is a development of the Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) currently available on Passat. This system recognises dangerous situations using radar measurements and activates the brakes as a precaution.
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