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Wolfsburg, 20 June 2005 – As if steered by a ghost driver. A Touareg with high-tech sensors, but no driver on board. Last Friday, for the first time in public, an autonomous Touareg had to demonstrate what it has learnt from humans: Volkswagen put the prototype to the test on an off-road course at Motopark Oschersleben. The “intelligent” four-wheel drive vehicle tackled the course with ease. The successful premiere was also a satisfying dress rehearsal. On 8 October, Volkswagen will take part in the US “Grand Challenge 2005”, a unique race for driverless automobiles, entering the prototype’s sister model.
Figures prove that so-called driver assistance systems are already making our roads safer. The most successful example is ESP. This “anti-skid system” saves lives year after year. The latest example is ACC. Used for the first time in the Phaeton, Adaptive Cruise Control now also reduces the probability of rear-end collisions in the new Passat. All of the latest available technology for recognition and analysis of a car’s environment has been used in the Grand Challenge Touareg. It has been established that, when combined, these driver assistance systems autonomously recognise the course and obstacles and steer the vehicle.
The derivatives of the systems demonstrated in Oschersleben will, in future, contribute to improving comfort and safety in cars. Matthias Rabe, head of company research at Volkswagen AG: “The systems need to be made as good as aware drivers themselves. In the next step, the systems will have to be made even better than the driver — by looking around the next corner and assessing the situation correctly.”
A Mobile High-tech Laboratory Called “Stanley”
In terms of technology, the vehicle is more or less the same as the production version. Only a full-length underbody protection plate and reinforced shock absorbers have been added. The prototype, which has affectionately been christened “Stanley”, was then turned into a mobile high-tech laboratory. Countless sensors as well as a combination of four laser detectors collect the data that allows the driverless car to find its way safely and quickly. The systems also use stereo visual equipment, high-tech 24-GHz radar systems and a highly accurate, satellite-supported GPS navigation system, which depicts the position of the vehicle digitally to the exact millimetre.
This concentrated flood of information is sent to the high-performance computer centre located in the boot of the off-road vehicle. It is made up of seven networked Pentium M motherboards each with a 1.6 GHz processor. This system uses complex and unique software to determine the steering, acceleration and braking commands needed to control “Stanley” electronically via “drive-by-wire” systems. It can react to the special features of the road in real-time.
In addition to the prototypes for the Grand Challenge, “Stanlette”, the Volkswagen Touareg that ran in Oschersleben, was built within a few weeks. The “female” counterpart has also the function of being a development carrier.
Research Focus on Autonomous Driving
Both vehicles were created in a collaboration between the Volkswagen research department, Volkswagen Group’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) in Palo Alto, California, and Stanford University (hence the nickname of the prototype). Autonomous driving basically forms one of the main research subjects of the ERL. Its implementation represents an immense scientific and technical challenge. Many aspects of the autonomous automobiles will eventually be used in other, more conventional driver assistance systems.
“In this joint project, we are using the unique chance to work with one of the most renowned universities and prove what is currently technically possible,” emphasises Dr. Carlo Rummel, head of the ERL in Palo Alto. He adds: “Of course, the competitive character ensures additional motivation among the team. Also the competition itself is an ideal stage to demonstrate the outstanding off-road capabilities of the Touareg.”
2005 Grand Challenge
Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) staged the Grand Challenge project for the first time offering US$1 million in prize money, which has now been raised to US$2 million.
This year, the Touareg specially conceived for the competition. As part of the Grand Challenge project, the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) brought Volkswagen’s broad knowledge of the field of autonomous vehicles into the partnership with the Stanford School of Engineering. Professor Sebastian Thrun – an internationally recognised expert for artificial intelligence – has assembled a highly skilled research and development team spanning nine different time zones.
The 2005 Grand Challenge starts on 8 October and will pass through the almost impassable Southwest desert in the United States. The participating vehicles have to navigate a 175-mile route (around 282 kilometres), which is not revealed until the start, within ten hours. No driver or operator intervention is allowed.
“This is the first long-distance race in the history of the automobile, in which the vehicles themselves make all of the decisions needed to progress,” emphasises Professor Sebastian Thrun, head of the Stanford Racing Team. “In other words: The car not only needs a strong body, but also a particularly intelligent mind.”
Background Information on the ERL: Trend Scout for New Technologies
Volkswagen Group’s North American Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) was founded in Palo Alto, California, (in the middle of Silicon Valley) in 1998. Its aim is to recognise potential technology early, swiftly make it ready for production and thus speed up the development of the “intelligent” car of the future. The team at this pioneering competence centre for electronics is currently made up of 40 engineers and designers, who operate as trend scouts and work closely together with the corresponding European development departments at the parent company. Their early recognition of technology, research and initial development leads to innovative new ideas with which Volkswagen Group products can gain a competitive advantage.
The ERL is currently involved in various areas of technology such as driver assistance systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication as well as the field of innovative infotainment and entertainment modules. The electronics research laboratory completes its tasks using synergies from internal expertise and from collaborations with external research groups, innovative start-up companies and leading US universities.
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