PARIS – Three past Grand Challenges for robotized vehicles sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have inspired two Dutch organizations to propose a Grand Cooperative Driving Challenge to take place in September 2011.

DARPA, the central research and development organization for the DoD, has been hosting the Grand Challenge since 2004. The event included scientists and engineers from universities and the private sector that competed against one another in a grueling desert race, in which participating vehicles navigated without a driver or directions from an outside source.

The first two international events held in 2004 and 2005 were physically challenging for the driverless cars, where the robots operated in isolation only encountering other vehicles when attempting to pass. The 2007 Urban Challenge required designers to build vehicles able to obey traffic laws while detecting and avoiding one another on a special course.

The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and the Dutch government-sponsored industry group High Tech Automotive Systems now have established a €5.5 million ($8 million) budget for their Grand Cooperative Driving Challenge (GCDC) that will offer €500,000 ($742,335) in prizes to vehicles that utilize automated brakes and throttles.

The vehicles, for instance, will be judged on their ability to operate smoothly through stop lights at intersections on specially equipped public roads.

TNO’s Anton Gerrits recently presented the new competition scheme to an audience at one of the top engineering schools in France, MINES-ParisTech, as part of a recent colloquium on vehicles of the 21st century.

Participating vehicles will not be fully robotized, but they will be required to use sensors and car-to-car communication to automate throttles and brakes. A driver will control steering.

Rules and technologies are to be discussed at a meeting in the Netherlands Dec. 8-9, and the program will be formally launched in March.

“We were inspired by the DARPA Grand Challenges,” Gerrits says. “Americans really know how to make it attractive; make a show out of it.”

At DARPA’s Urban Challenge two years ago, Tartan Racing’s Boss Chevrolet Tahoe, a joint effort by Carnegie Mellon University and General Motors Co., won a $2 million prize, and the event garnered a fair amount of press.

“The main driver is media exposure," Gerrits says, adding it is a critical element in allowing teams to attract sponsors.

TNO, which works with small and medium high-tech enterprises to help launch their innovations, sees the GCDC event as a way to “break the stalemate” between government and industry, with each side waiting for the other to move ahead on car-to-car communication to improve driver safety and road congestion.

For the GCDC, TNO will fix the communication protocols, determine the signals to be communicated, safety measures, wireless protocols and a mandatory message set.

Teams will be able to design their own in-car architecture and choose sensors, strategy and the interface with drivers.

TNO estimates cooperative driving could cut traffic congestion in half and reduce accidents 8% and carbon-dioxide emissions 5%.

Participating vehicles in the contest will be judged on their actions in three scenarios:

  • Platooning and passing within the platoon.
  • Throughput at a traffic light.
  • Handling a crossroads on a figure-8 track.

Following the event, the sponsors hope to spin off the idea to a company that will hold a new global challenge every two years, either in Europe or North America. Organizers say new and gradually more challenging traffic situations will be addressed to stimulate the development of cooperative-driving technology in the longer term.

So far, some 30 teams are considering participation in the TNO 2011 event, mainly from universities and research centers but also those in the auto industry such as Denso Corp., Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp.

The University of Nebraska and China’s Tongji University already are registered, and Gerrits says he will begin recruiting teams that participated in previous DARPA events.