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Spletzer to talk on “driverless” car contest

John Spletzer, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh, in red shirt, stands in front of Little Ben.

John Spletzer, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, will give a presentation at 4 p.m. Thursday about a recent national competition for autonomous vehicles in which a car designed by engineers from Lehigh and the University of Pennsylvania placed fifth.

Spletzer’s talk, titled “The Ben Franklin Racing Team and the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge,” will take place in Packard Lab Auditorium. A reception will be held at 3:30 p.m. in the lobby of Packard Lab.

Little Ben, a Toyota Prius converted into a robotic car by Spletzer and his teammates, was one of just six vehicles to navigate and drive itself through the entire 60 miles of the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge.

The challenge, which was held earlier this month in Victorville, Calif., required cars to navigate a simulated urban course while executing such complicated tasks as parking in a specified parking spot, entering and exiting a traffic circle, waiting and proceeding at four-way stop signs, and merging with moving traffic.

The 2007 challenge was the third in three years sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the research arm of the Pentagon. It was the first challenge that required cars to interact with moving as well as stationary obstacles.

Little Ben, which was designed by engineers from Lehigh, Penn and Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Laboratories, did not win any of the $3.5 million in prize money from DARPA, but it recorded several significant honors while exceeding the expectations of its engineers.

The converted Toyota Prius was one of just five “driverless” cars to complete the competition in six hours, and it was the only car of the six finishers whose team had not received $1 million in funding from DARPA to prepare for the race.

In completing the course at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Little Ben survived a rigorous, yearlong winnowing process. A total of 89 teams, from around the U.S. and abroad, entered this year’s Challenge. Three dozen, including Little Ben, passed site visits last summer to advance to a national qualifying event.

Only 11 cars, nine fewer than the 20 DARPA expected, survived the qualifying event to advance to the Grand Challenge.

The goal of the competition was to promote the development of sophisticated, driverless, ground-combat vehicles for the U.S. military and thus meet a congressional mandate that one-third of such vehicles be unmanned by 2015.

Teams from Carnegie-Mellon University, Stanford University and the Virginia Institute of Technology finished first, second and third in the Grand Challenge.

Penn was lead member of the Ben Franklin Racing Team. Dan Lee, associate professor of electrical and systems engineering at Penn, was team leader.

Little Ben was equipped with video-camera “eyes” and laser range-finder systems, as well GPS and Web camera systems.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

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