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As director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. government's military research and development arm, Tether pioneered a series of driverless challenges that have wowed the public and four-star generals alike. His agency was also responsible for funding early development of the Internet and wireless infrastructure around the country.
Tether graduated from Stanford in 1969 with a master's degree in science and a doctorate in electrical engineering. After his college years, he started several companies, including Systems Controls, a technology supplier to the military, and the Sequoia Group consultancy. He was appointed director of DARPA in 2001.
CNET News.com talked to Tether ahead of the Urban Challenge, the third in DARPA's series of robot races, which will award $2 million to the winner. The finals will take place November 3 in Victorville, Calif.
Q: We're getting close to the Urban Challenge, and you've witnessed all of the others. So how do you suspect this one will vary from the others?
Tether: Well, it's really a much harder Challenge. In the previous Challenges, we proved that you could make vehicles that could travel long distances...with no drivers, (doing) hairpin turns and going through various obstacles. All the vehicles basically had the same experience. I mean they went on the same track; the same obstacles were there; the obstacles didn't move.
This one will be different. This one they also have a time--they have to get in under six hours in order to qualify for the prize. But the event itself is more than just speed because these vehicles now have to actually act like they're trying to pass the California drivers test.
By the way, we all have copies of the 2007 drivers manual from California. It's a pretty thick manual. So this time we have over a hundred people (out on the course) positioned at corners and so forth, actually gathering data on these vehicles. So, it is very possible that somebody could get through the course in less than six hours and flunk their driving test.
So if all the cars failed their driving test, you obviously wouldn't name a winner?
Tether: Right. They have to obey the rules and show that these vehicles can respond to the environment around them. What makes it different than the other Grand Challenges is that the environment itself is going to be random because each of the robots will have to contend with each other out in the course. The course itself is benign.
It's an urban area that is used by our services in training in urban warfare, but it's sort of a residential area. There are houses, street corners...traffic circles. If an unmanned convoy came to a city and had to go through it, these are the kinds of things you would have to contend with and so it has to do it safely. Safety is really more of the criteria here than speed. (But) speed is still the necessary condition.
Under what condition might the race run over into Sunday?
Tether: The weather. It should be good, but occasionally they do get these major windstorms and get winds that (gusted) up to 60, 70 miles an hour and the fact that we have people out on the course--behind K barriers. I mean the 'bots won't care about the weather, but having that many people out there, I have to be concerned about safety.
What will be the hardest thing about the course, without giving anything away?
Tether: Here's how it's going to happen: we're going to be sending them out on what we call a mission. And the missions are something like this: they will leave the grand stand area and they will be told to go to like five points on the course in (the) order that these points are laid out--go to this place and go this place. Basically, they have to calculate how they're going to get there with GPS technology that calculates a route for you.
(But) there will be a few surprises. Most of them will probably pick the shortest distance, to make (a) way through all these various stops. And we could close a route of the shortest distance and they might find that the road is closed, which means the robot has to recalculate a new path and make a three-way turn and come back out the way it came. So it's going to be fairly dynamic, but fair.
I've heard from people that DARPA made the first Challenge really difficult and nobody could finish it. Then the second year the race was manageable and then, everyone could do it, apart from a few mechanical failures...
Tether: I don't really think so. If you went and looked at the track the first year and compared it to the track on the second year, you would find that the second year was extraordinarily much more difficult. These things had to do hairpin turns, 180-degree turns, tons of right turns--these are the things that hurt the first year.
I think what happened between the first year and the second year is that...at least in the world of the media, it didn't look like much was accomplished in that they only went eight miles. But remember, this was the first time this ever was done, where they went eight miles at speeds of 20, 30 miles an hour.
I think they didn't quite realize how accurate they really had to be. They really had to have external sensors that were watching things like the edges of the road and where there might be obstacles. I think in the first year they relied a little bit too much on a brute force, an almost GPS approach. In the second year, they knew that that couldn't be done so they became much smarter. Plus they already knew that from the people doing this there was, "holy cow," we went eight miles.
In fact, I'll tell you a story. Gen. Kevin Byrnes--who at that time was the four-star general, the U.S. Army TRADOC, which is the training and doctrine command--he showed up unexpectedly one morning on the first one. I was sitting up in the stands with him, when the vehicles started off and Carnegie Mellon went out and another car went out. It was chilly, I mean it was spooky because they went down the road, they made a turn. And he turned to me and he said, 'Now look, there's nobody inside there right?' I said, 'No, no, there's nobody inside there.' He said, 'Now, and there's nobody controlling them remotely right' because it looked like they were being driven by somebody. Now these were the two vehicles that got the furthest, by the way.
So what do you think has been accomplished between the second and now?
Tether: I think the thing that's really been accomplished is that these vehicles have learned to recognize not only fixed obstacles, but obstacles that are moving.
I went to a couple of the site visits and the first thing (one of) the vehicles did for me was a three-way turn. Now, imagine you're watching this vehicle all by itself do a three-way turn and then come to an intersection, and there was a car there already and when it pulled up, another car pulled up after it. It knew enough to wait for the first car to go because by the rules, it knew that car had precedent. But it also knew that it had precedence over the other car that showed up after. It was stunning.
It was absolutely beyond my expectation to the point where I think we're going to have several vehicles finish the track.
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