RealTime IT News

Tricked-Out For Hi-Tech Challenge

The race is on.

Or soon will be. Next month, a group of tricked-out, high-tech cars will compete for a $2 million prize in a contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

There will be no controversy over female drivers in this race because these cars have no drivers. The main goal is to use high tech-assisted guidance to complete the course.

And that'll be easier said than done for the 43 contestants. In last year's race, Carnegie Mellon University's modified Humvee went the farthest (almost 8 miles) before getting stuck close to a cliff's edge. To win this year’s prize, entrants need to complete a difficult 175-mile course through the Mojave desert in less than 10 hours using no human intervention.

A first time entry team from Stanford University has packed a Volkswagen Touareg R5, affectionately named Stanley, with enough high tech components to make the Batmobile envious. The car includes a turbocharged powerplant and chassis, a cluster of six onboard Intel Pentium M computers that process information for five laser range finders, a radar system, monocular vision, GPS and an inertial measurement system.

To avoid the kind of software defects that have thrown previous entrants off course the Stanford team enlisted a lot of high tech support including Coverity, a San Francisco-based maker of software quality and test solutions. Founded by Stanford University scientists in 2002 Coverity works with such well known companies as Juniper Networks, Veritas, McAfee, Synopsys, Sun Microsystems, Wind River as well as NASA, on software quality.

Stanley car
Stanley in motion.

"A project like this isn't that different than what we normally do, we look for the same kind of defects in the software, bugs are bugs," Coverity CEO Seth Hallem told "But there is a different complexity here with all the onboard sensors and computers.

Coverity is already working with telematics companies on car navigation systems and Hallem expects to be doing more of that work in the future. "The onboard computer industry an important industry when you look at what's being added in the way of communications and entertainment. The CEO of Ford said he expects there to be 100 million lines of code in the average consumer car by 2010."

Coverity's Prevent and Extend source code analysis products are being used to find and eliminate software defects in six custom software modules designed by the Stanford team: Computer vision; Inertial Navigation; LIDAR -- Light Detection And Ranger (similar to radar but with lasers); Planning and optimization; Control; and Reliability.

Engineers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) tested and analyzed Stanley's software which might someday lead to driver assistance systems designed to enhance automotive safety. SAIL found 68 defects split about evenly between custom software it had developed and software libraries that other engineers created.

"We were able to identify and subsequently address software issues using Coverity's technology that we were unable to find through manual testing," Dr. Alex Aiken of the Stanford Computer Science Research Group, said in a statement.

Another sponsor TYZX, based in Menlo Park, CA, is one of several companies helping with Stanley’s guidance system. TYZX uses stereo vision, which helps a computer see like humans do through passive light, as opposed to sending out a signal, such as radar, and waiting for a return. The TYZX stereo vision also helps a computer accurately determine depth - much like a humans.

The company's name is a play on its approach. In computing a digital image, T represents time, X and Y represent height and width, while Z represents depth. In the Tyzx 3DAWARE system, depth perception is measured by comparing two images and calculating the precise shift in a particular pixel - or picture element-in each image.

More than 30 Stanford engineering faculty and students from computer science, mechanical engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, and management science and engineering departments are involved in getting Stanley prepped to compete as well as engineers from the Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab. Other supporters include staff from early stage venture capital firm MDV-Mohr, Davidow Ventures, and sponsors Honeywell, Intel, Red Bull and Android.