It is about the size of a bathtub and trundles along with the speed and grace of a man hefting a full wheelbarrow. No one is going to vote this vehicle chick magnet of the year. In fact, this model doesn’t carry a driver, and that’s the point. With no human holding a wheel inside or joystick from a far, Kratos, Princeton University’s entry into the 2008 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, (IGVC) navigates its own way around the obstacle-strewn course, and stays ever within the lane.

Princeton’s entry took gold in the design class, bronze overall, above the 47 entrants, and was named rookie of the year in the 2008 competition. The art of solely computerized, and computer/man synergized vehicles has come far beyond the realms of sci-fi in a very short time. To explain the tools and challenges, the Princeton chapter of the ACM/IEEE is presenting “Autonomous Vehicles at Princeton University,” featuring speakers Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University and founder of ALK Technologies on Herrontown Road, and four undergraduates working with him. This free talk will be held on Thursday, November 20, at 8 p.m. at the Sarnoff Center. Attendees are invited to a 6 p.m. pre-talk dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s on Route 1 South. Visit www.princetonacm.org.

Kornhauser keeps his feet planted in both the commercial and experimental research areas of autonomous vehicles. Born in France and raised in Pittsburgh, Kornhauser attended Penn State University, earning a bachelor’s in aerospace technology in 1966, followed by a master’s. He came to Princeton to take his aerospace Ph.D., and after a brief stint at the University of Minnesota, returned to Princeton in 1972 and has served as a professor ever since.

In 1979 Kornhauser founded ALK technologies, run by his wife Katherine, who acts as president. The firm’s primary product, CoPilot, provides accurate, turn-by-turn routing for commercial trucks and private autos, thus adding great value to both drivers and vehicles. Fed Ex drivers love the system’s ability to interpret ever-shifting route data and feed the most efficient routes right through their cell phones. These and other features have placed the $299 CoPilot at No. 2 in the European market, with another 10,000 sold in North America.

“The clumsy-looking cars of the 2008 IGVC belie how far along the guided vehicle really is at this time,” says Kornhauser. Both the Department of Defense and several automakers have employed Princeton’s technology in existent vehicles.

Past progress. In 2005 the DOD proposed its DARPA Grand Challenge for an autonomous vehicle to drive 132 miles across the desert and arrive at a predetermined point in one piece.

Under Kornhauser’s leadership, members of PAVE — Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering — modified a silver GM pickup truck and proudly named it Prospect 11. Making it to the semi -finals, Prospect 11 raced off across the desert, obtaining a blistering 65 mph. But alas, 9.5 miles into the race, the Tigers’ hopes were dashed as their silver bullet developed a memory leak. The auto stalled, but the Tigers returned with the single line of code repaired and navigated to the target.

Two years later, PAVE drove its new Prospect 12 to the 2007 DARPA Challenge. This time the 89 entrants faced a much harsher challenge, on a wholly different course. “This course simulated an urban environment,” explains Kornhauser. “Our 2005 Ford Escort was expected to pass vehicles, recognize and obey traffic signs, perform K-turns, plus work through road junctions. It was like driving down Nassau Street, with no human control.”

But for 2007 PAVE was meeting the challenge with an array of new technology. The original 2005 single set of two stereo cameras set on the hood was expanded to three sets to provide better field recognition and depth perception. Improved computers were installed to signal the drive-by-wire operation. In the end, Princeton drove home from Porterville, California, and DARPA 2007 with a sixth place finish out of 11 finalists.

Today’s vehicles. The boxy little auto that tore up the field in the IGVC 2008 embodied several more perfected innovations beyond its previous commercial-car models. “The goal here was different,” noted Kornhauser. “We were building an auto from scratch. All the mechanical parts, such as the breaking system, came from our students. And we wanted the whole project to be a learning experience as well.”

Kornhauser’s crew examined their Kratos 2008 and first overcame the centrifusion problem. They upgraded the computer system to resolve and decide amongst conflicting incoming data. Some of the new algorithms for navigation were entirely this PAVE team’s invention.

Onto the future. “Today’s autonomous vehicles are taking on a whole new philosophy of control,” notes Kornhauser. Previously, both in ALK’s CoPilot and in the PAVE vehicles, it was deemed that navigation systems required exquisitely accurate GPS systems working off equally accurate maps. Thus the vehicle could say “Go 26.25 feet and turn right.”

Now vehicles are improving their monitoring capabilities, to “see” a road junction. The vehicle now says to itself that the proper turn should be just up ahead; then it notes the stop sign, the curb, and white line changes and realizes that here is the actual turn. Then it makes it.

“Our hope is to have one of our vehicles to pass the New Jersey state drivers’ test,” says Kornhauser. To achieve this the car would have to be outfitted with speech recognition, a la Star Trek. When asked about every new driver’s bugaboo, parallel parking, Kornhauser smiles and replies, “We’d have to add that, of course. But that’s no great problem. We have the K-turn now, and for parallel parking, the geometry is easy to nail down — it’s strictly a deterministic maneuver.”

Easy for him to say. Try it on Nassau Street.

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