July 18, 2005 11:35 AM PDT

'Stanley' gets ready for the robo-desert race

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to "remember" how it's first driven over a course manually, and then emulate those actions for autonomous driving.

Other new applications include commands for the car to slow down on rough roads. David Stavens, a computer science Ph.D. student, also wrote a program that tells the car to find the center of the road after it swerves to avoid an obstacle.

Last weekend, the team headed back to the desert to drive over last year's course and test Stanley's endurance with its current improvements. The weekend road trip is one of about eight more the team will take before the October challenge, which will be held on a secret course somewhere in the desert.

"The vision is to make cars safer, to benefit society," said Thrun, "but it's also to do something no one has done before."

During last weekend's trip, Stanley encountered six failures on the 144-mile terrain. According to Thrun, the failures were caused by false interpretations of the road ahead; an inability to drive through a couple of long underpasses with an extended GPS outage; a hardware failure of Stanley's cooling fans (the outside temperature hit 123 degrees Fahrenheit); and at one point, an inexplicable veering off the road.

And those errors were a step up from a recent trip. Two weeks ago, the team attempted the same course and Stanley made it only an average of 25 miles before stumbling, forcing a human driver who was along for the ride to take control.

Still, the team has made major breakthroughs in Stanley's software this month, according to Mike Montemerlo, a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford's AI lab who heads up software development for Stanley. New mapping code dramatically reduces false positives in the car's obstacle warning system. And the software now uses machine-learning technology to program the car to "remember" how it's first driven over a course manually, and then emulate those actions for autonomous driving.

Other new applications include commands for the car to slow down on rough roads. David Stavens, a computer science Ph.D. student, also wrote a program that tells the car to find the center of the road after it swerves to avoid an obstacle.

The recent road trip is one of about eight more the team will take before the October challenge, which will be held on a secret course somewhere in the desert.

"We will return to the desert soon with the hopes of fixing those remaining bugs, so that we might actually finish the course without any failures," said Thrun.

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