What is the DARPA Urban Challenge?

A modified and robotized Volkswagen Passat.
A Volkswagen Passat, modified and robotized by a team from Stanford University, competes in the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007.
Tangi Quemener/AFP/Getty Images

Let's face it: People are bad drivers. We zoom around, talking (or texting) on our cell phones, yelling at the kids in the back, fiddling with the radio and generally thinking about anything but the road. In fact, one study by the Federal Highway Administration estimates that 93 percent of car accidents are a direct result of driver error [source: FHWA].

Because people are such bad drivers, we know car safety is important. That's why car companies develop things like traction control, anti-roll systems and airbags in concert with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the insurance industry. It's also why they work with the Defense Department to develop unmanned vehicles that can carry weapons and navigate war zo­nes.


Did that last bit throw you? You might be thinking that automotive safety is about things like airbags and seat belts, not missiles and drones. And while traffic can be bad, it's not exactly a war zone out there. But a key part of automotive safety is preventing accidents, and one of the best ways to do that is to take drivers out of the equation. That means developing cars that can drive themselves. But there are other uses of driverless car technology that can keep people -- namely soldiers -- safe. The same systems that can help a car navigate traffic can help an unmanned vehicle deliver help and supplies or perform reconnaissance in a war zone. That means fewer soldiers on the battlefield and fewer lives lost. That's why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) came up with its annual Urban Challenge.

So what is DARPA all about? Find out in the next section.




A modified and robotized Volkswagen Passat.
A Volkswagen Passat, modified by a German team, could help DARPA get one step closer to fully automated vehicles.
Tangi Quemener/AFP/Getty Images

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an arm of the Department of Defense. Its mission is to manage research projects. The projects aren't basic research, however. DARPA characterizes them as high-risk and hig­h-reward. That means that a lot of the research projects and new developments won't pan out. The few that do, however, will dramatically advance technology and missions for the military.

The founding of DARPA was spurred by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik. The Department of Defense was worried that the Soviet Union and other hostile nations were developing weapons technology more advanced than that of the U.S. In 1958, DARPA was created with the task of making sure that the United States always has a technological edge over adversaries.


DARPA is a unique government agency. To make sure that it's always on the cutting edge, the agency is small. It operates outside of the military's traditional research and development agencies and reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. That eliminates a lot of bureaucracy and allows the agency to act fast on the most promising research. One way that DARPA does this is by using contests and challenges to encourage innovation. Starting in 2004, the Urban Challenge has been one of its most famous contests. The Urban Challenge has gotten a lot of press, not only because the technology has many military and civilian applications, but also because it's really, really cool

So who won the latest Urban Challenge, and how did the winner do it? Go to the next page to find out.



The Urban Challenge

A modified Chevrolet Tahoe.
A modified Chevrolet Tahoe known as the "Boss" won the DARPA Urban Challenge and went on to compete at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show.
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

The most recent Urban Challenge was held Nov. 3, 2007, and consisted of unmanned cars racing around an old Air Force base. Eleven unmanned cars were in the race, and 30 cars with drivers were added to the course to increase the traffic density. Teams had no prior knowledge of the race course. They were given a map of the course two days before, but this wasn't a simple point-A-to-B race. The vehicles had to visit checkpoints in a specific order, like an unmanned military vehicle would have to do as a part of a mission. DARPA officials were on hand throughout the course to observe the vehicles and monitor safety.

The cars used a number of computer programs, as well as radar sensors and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The systems all worked together to calculate a course, sense obstacles and avoid other cars. Some systems are similar to technology already in cars on the road, like Automatic Cruise Control, which keeps a set distance between a car and the car in front of it. Other technologies, which allow a car to come to an intersection, sense other traffic and know who has the right of way, are years from mass production.


Though 11 vehicles started the race, by midmorning, half had been disqualified. One was stopped moments before it ran into a building, and another simply pulled off the road and into a carport before being disqualified. In the end, six vehicles finished the race: Tartan Racing (a team put together by Carnegie Mellon University and General Motors, among others), won first prize (and $2 million), while teams from Stanford University and Virginia Tech came in second and third, respectively.

All in all, the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge showed that technologies for unmanned vehicles are closer than you might think. While there are a lot of bugs to work out of the technology, the same can be said for human drivers.

To learn more about car technologies, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • DARPA Over the Years. http://www.darpa.mil/body/overtheyears.html
  • DARPA Grand Challenge http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/
  • Greene, Kate. "Stanford's New Driverless Car." Technology Review. June 15, 2007. http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/18908/?a=f
  • Krishner, Tom. "GM Researching Driverless Cars." MSNBC. January 6, 2008. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22529906/
  • Lum, Harry and Jerry A. Regan. "Interactive Highway Safety Design Model: Accident Predictive Model. http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/winter95/p95wi14.htm
  • Olsen, Stephanie. "CMU Wins $2 Million in Urban Robot Race" November 3, 2007. CNET. http://news.cnet.com/8301-10784_3-9810621-7.html
  • Olsen, Stephanie. "DARPA Sees Inspiration as Trophies of Robot Race." October 18, 2007.http://news.cnet.com/DARPA-sees-inspiration-as-trophy-of-robot-race/ 2008-1014_3-6214091.html
  • Squatriglia, Chuck. "GM Says Driverless Cars Could Be on the Road by 2018." Wired Magazine. January 7, 2008. http://blog.wired.com/cars/2008/01/gm-says-driverl.html