Student team advances to finals in self-driving vehicle contest

The U.S. military has selected a team of Princeton undergraduates to compete in the final round of a $2 million contest to engineer a self-driving vehicle that can negotiate 150 miles of rugged desert terrain.

The student team was chosen for the international contest after a week of intensive trials in Fontana, Calif., during which 23 top teams were culled from 43 semifinalists. The final event will take place Saturday, Oct. 8, in the desert of Primm, Nev. Updates on the contest, including a blog from the Princeton students, are available through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is sponsoring the contest.

The team, which worked with a minimal budget and salvaged GMC pickup truck, started as one of 195 entrants and passed through several visits and reviews by DARPA officials to make it to the semifinals, which concluded Wednesday, Oct. 5.

"It's phenomenal," said team member Bryan Cattle, a junior. "We're still just amazed that we made it this far. But it's funny: The thing that kept us going through the all-nighters, the nights out in the snow in the parking lot, was that we never really doubted for a day that that we'd make the finals and that we might bring home the $2 million. Yet part of me says this is just unbelievable."

The competition, known as the DARPA Grand Challenge, began in 2004 when the military agency challenged professional engineers, students and hobbyists to design a vehicle that could drive through the desert with no human intervention. No one won the original contest, which carried a $1 million prize. DARPA then doubled the prize. It will go to the team whose vehicle completes a 150-mile course in the shortest time under 10 hours, while avoiding various man-made obstacles and natural hazards.

The students, who were advised by Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering, did nearly all the design work, programming and building themselves. "We have by far the least budget and by far the most simplistic approach -- not simplistic, but you might say elegant," said Cattle. "We brought what we had and made it work."

In the qualifying events during the last week, the students' vehicle -- dubbed Prospect 11 -- ran flawlessly through several two-mile runs, neatly avoiding piles of tires and parked cars. It also had some failures, including one run in which it smashed into a parked vehicle because of an error in the global positioning system. After a few corrections and lessons learned, the students said they are not making any major changes before the final event Saturday.

"It works so well there is no reason to fool with it," said Anand Atreya, a junior.

In addition to Cattle and Atreya, the team members on the trip are sophomores Gordon Franken, Brendan Collins, Andrew Saxe and Joshua Herbach, and seniors Scott Schiffres, Kamil Choudhury and Rachel Blaire.

Regardless of the final results, Atreya said the group feels that it already has accomplished and learned an enormous amount. "We feel great," he said. "The fact that we have made a car that drives itself is amazing, and now we're going to the finals. It's something that none of us have ever done before."