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Pioneer Chris Urmson: A brief history of automated driving

"The Boss": the robot car that won the DARPA Urban Challange. (Photo: Carnegie Mellon University)

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Dr Joachim Becker
Dr Joachim Becker
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To further develop driverless cars, Volkswagen has paired up with the specialists from Aurora – a partnership that can be traced back to the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005.

You probably wouldn’t imagine those making car history to be as carefree as young racers or as analytical as rocket scientists. But this is in fact exactly how Chris Urmson and Sterling Andersen come across at CES 2018. Urmson bowls over his business partner with statements about automated driving: “It’s about finding an elegant solution. In the end, it’s the beauty of simplicity. The automotive industry can then compete on the quality of experience and the brand.”

Urmson is a somewhat untypical race driver – after all, he taught his rally cars to win races on their own. Back in 2007, the robot expert was part of a team from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) that won the DARPA Urban Challenge using lean software solutions. Continental was also part of the team: “To navigate the next three seconds, our car “Boss” had to constantly analyze over 1000 possible options,” recalls Michael Darms. “All the possible swerve maneuvers were already in.” The Continental engineer was sent to Pittsburgh by his boss for a year to prepare for the race: “The German car industry was highly interested in this work as it would form the foundations for future assistance systems.”

A shock moment for the German car industry

At that point, no one in Germany was seriously investing in fully autonomous vehicles. So when Google put droves of their egg-shaped automated test vehicles on the road in 2015, it came as a shock. The country that had patented the automobile began to fear that it would not be able to keep up with the next biggest technological development. However, a key turning point had already occurred in the Mojave Desert in 2005. After a disastrous opening race in 2004, in which no cars reached the finish line, leading U.S. universities got on board. The following year, the CMU team took second and third place. Chris Urmson took over in June 2006. After securing a victory for the team, he moved to Google in 2009 as Chief Technology Officer in charge of self-driving cars. The outcome? The aforementioned egg-shaped cars.

Stanley: The autonomous vehicle that won Stanford the DARPA Grand Challenge. (Photo: DARPA)

Now Chris Urmson wants to win the race for an automotive future. Volkswagen is planning to have fully autonomous vehicles (Level 5) on the road by 2021 at the latest. This constellation is particularly interesting as Urmson was previously involved in a head-to-head race with the Wolfsburg-based firm. In 2004, the VW Electronics Research Lab in Palo Alto rang Sebastian Thrun. The researchers offered the Stanford University robotics expert three VW Touaregs that went on to win the 126-mile long desert rally in 2005. In 2007, however, a blue VW Passat "Junior" was defeated by the CMU team in the 60-mile Urban Challenge. Their black Chevrolet Tahoe off-road vehicle nicknamed "Boss" beat the defending champion "Junior" by a whole 20 minutes.

Urmson vs. Thrun – watched by Larry Page

“The Urban Challenge on an abandoned airfield was pretty eventful. For the first time the cars had to interact,” says Urmson. Sebastian Thrun referred to the race as “high-impact research” due to the large number of collisions that occurred during the race. There were stock car drivers simulate traffic and a large screen on which spectators could follow the race. “The radiance of this scoreboard intervened with our GPS,” Urmson remembers. Unnoticed in the crowd was a man wearing sunglasses and hat: it was Google-founder Larry Page, a man with a strong interest in automated vehicles. Shortly after the event, he launched a secret autonomous car project, joined first by Chris Urmson in 2009 and later by Sebastian Thrun (who in 2012 went on to found online education company Udacity).

Sebastian Thrun (Photo: Stanford University)

Under the leadership of Urmson, the Google team covered at total of 1.8 million test kilometers. “To work for Google was like paradise. It’s a really good company,” he explains at a dinner in Las Vegas. During his 7.5 years with the company, he was able to grow the team significantly: “I had the privilege of building up the team from five to 650 people, all reporting to me. I don’t think this was too many because it’s a very hard problem. But in the end, it just wasn´t fun anymore. It affected my ability to be a good leader and it affected my ability to be part of the team.” The reason why Urmson felt this “need to move on” was also due to the decision made by Google / Alphabet not to build a successor to the two-seat autonomous test vehicle. Instead, the Californians wanted to work more closely with traditional car companies. Something that Urmson now also does, just for his own benefit.  

Silicon Valley: the circle of power

In 2016, the robot-pioneer founded start-up Aurora, soon bringing Sterling Andersen on board. Before making the move, 32-year-old Andersen was the head developer of Tesla’s Autopilot. Although his former boss Elon Musk initially tried to sue him for allegedly stealing ideas, these charges have since been dropped. Perhaps because Musk has had to accept that his Autopilot is not as unique as he thought.

These stories are all fairly normal in Silicon Valley: The original founders in the tech hub all know each other well. Even the contact to Volkswagen has a longer history. Johann Jungwirth joined Volkswagen at the end of 2015 as Chief Digital Officer. Shortly before, the diesel exhaust scandal had broken out leading to a complete restructuring of the corporate strategy. Jungwirth, known as J.J. in the industry, had previously led the Mercedes development center in Sunnyvale and Apple’s program for self-driving cars. At CES, he announced the cooperation with Aurora.

Johann Jungwirth (Photo: Volkswagen)

“My journey began exactly seven years ago here at CES. Google presented a Toyota Prius that ran autonomously in downtown Las Vegas and then back over the highway to the Convention Center,” says Jungwirth. Since then he has closely followed Urmson’s progress with the Google self-driving system. “We’ve been in contact since 2010 and discussed ways to work together since 2016 – exactly what we’ve been doing for the past six months.” Now the DARPA Rally competitors are forming a new team to develop what Jungwirth refers to as “the best self-driving system in the world”. As part of their Level 5 project, they want to put 50 test vehicles on the roads this year. A number that should increase 10 fold by 2019. By 2020, the plan is to have 5000 vehicles using the self-driving system from Aurora and VW.

After the victory at the Grand Challenge in 2005, Sebastian Thrun announced: “In 50 years’ time, we will have cars that can drive themselves.” VW and Aurora now want to roll out their self-driving system by 2021 in the "first two to five cities with the right conditions." As with the desert races, the driving robots will continue to require certain conditions in order to function. This includes as few cyclists and pedestrians as possible, as these could force the defensive autonomous cars to make braking maneuvers. Still, it is remarkable to see how human creativity has accelerated the development of autonomous vehicles – around 30 years faster than Thrun expected.

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