The SUV represents an Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based team’s best shot at creating a vehicle that can drive as well as a human being on a road full of obstacles - in a contest funded by the Department of Defense.
Professor Jon How can see the day when cars are on the road without a person behind the wheel. ‘‘To a human driving, it would appear no different,’’ said How, a professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ‘‘It would be just one of the other cars on the road. That's what I think is one of the ultimate goals. It needs to be able to handle all the things that humans can handle easily and well.’’
As he spoke, How stood on a vast, vacant expanse near a former hangar at the South Weymouth Naval Air Station. Behind him, a Land Rover outfitted with cameras, sensors and laser equipment beeped and moved along a makeshift road delineated by sacks of flour.
The SUV represents an MIT-based team’s best shot at creating a vehicle that can drive as well as a human being on a road full of obstacles. The car being tested on the base will be entered in an event called the Urban Challenge, organized by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The challenge calls on teams of engineers from across the country to outfit a conventional car with the technology needed to navigate busy streets.
Twenty other robotic cars will race on a former military base in California to determine which one functions best. The team that creates the best-performing car will win $2 million. A semifinal qualifier will be held Oct. 24 and the final on Nov. 3.
Team MIT, which received $1 million in government funding, has been working on its car since December.
The team includes students, professors and engineers, including some from other colleges and from private laboratories.
‘‘The concept is to drive in an urban setting for a 60-mile mission,’’ said Troy Jones, an engineer at the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge. ‘‘Deal with traffic, come to intersections with other cars, stop at the stop lines in the correct way, merge - most of the basic things you do when you drive - but do it all without a driver.’’
Such challenges are right up DARPA’s alley, Jones said.
‘‘They really do focus on trying to solve problems that most people think are unsolvable, so if an engineer or a scientist tells you something is 10 years away, that’s exactly what DARPA is going to ask you to do next week,’’ he said.
The SUV is outfitted with several cameras and sensors that scan and map out the terrain ahead as the vehicle moves forward. Forty computers installed in the cargo area process the data and make the vehicle turn, swerve or slow down to avoid anything in its path. Flour is used to create lane markings on the pavement.
The SUV starts moving with the push of a button. Two students inside operate it by laptop, although they could just as easily do it with a remote control.
The SUV can’t exactly take on a life of its own to the point of being dangerous. There’s a red ‘‘Disable’’ button; pushing it stops the engine immediately.
One of the harder questions the engineering team faces is how to get the car to queue up at an intersection and know when the moment for turning into a stream of traffic is right. The car needs to calculate how far away oncoming cars are, what the gap is and how quickly the car can get into the traffic flow.
‘‘Very challenging set of questions,’’ How said. ‘‘One of the tests is, if there is a gap of a certain length, you must turn in that gap. You can’t wait for a really long gap.’’
One doesn’t need to think long to grasp the breadth of potential uses for the technology - from military vehicles that navigate dangerous urban terrain to cars that cut the middleman out of a pizza or rental-car delivery.
‘‘There are a lot of jobs that you can imagine that people do where you’re driving a vehicle that could just be replaced, (like) bus drivers - not that we’d want to put them out of work,’’ How said.
The experiments continue. The roughly 30 members of the MIT team are looking to move next month from Weymouth to a base in California. The team will be allowed to test the vehicle on that base’s streets, which are complete with curbs and trees, as opposed to the more restricted environment in Weymouth, where cars and construction trucks still regularly travel the roads.
40 Number of computers installed in the back of a specially outfitted Land Rover to enable the vehicle to navigate simulated roads.
5 Number of cameras mounted on the vehicle to see obstacles in front of the SUV as it moves.
10 Number of radar units mounted on the vehicle to detect what’s ahead.
12 Number of lasers scanning the terrain in front of the SUV to render a grid that shows obstacles as the vehicle gets closer to them.
500 Pounds of flour the MIT team bought to help create makeshift lanes on the air base’s pavement.
20 Teams still taking part in the semifinals of a federal government-sponsored competition called the Urban Challenge. They are trying to create robotic vehicles that can drive in heavy traffic as well as humans can. The finals will be held Nov. 3.
30 mph Maximum speed a vehicle can travel in the Urban Challenge.
$2 million Prize for winning the Urban Challenge. For more information on the competition, visit www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/
Sources: MIT Team, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Jack Encarnacao of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.