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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2005 / 10 

Cliff and Rocky may not have won the Grand Challenge, but they out-performed peer competitors

October 11, 2005

The official results of the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle race through the Mojave Desert are in and, although the two Virginia Tech vehicles did not win the $2 million prize or even complete the 132-mile course, they out-performed all other vehicles developed by purely academic teams.

Virginia Tech’s “Cliff” completed 42 miles of the rugged course, placing eighth, and “Rocky” persevered for 39 miles, placing ninth, reported Charles Reinholtz, Alumni Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering and co-adviser of the team.

The Grand Challenge race, sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm), began near Primm, Nev., just after dawn on Oct. 8. The 23 vehicles that qualified for the race had to navigate and maneuver the Mojave Desert course — consisting of lakebeds, desert roads, tight turns, tunnels, gateways and treacherous mountain passes — with no human intervention allowed past the starting line.

“Both of our rugged little Pioneer vehicles ran for more than four hours on Saturday morning,” Reinholtz said. Cliff and Rocky traveled farther than the entries from the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Ohio State University, Princeton University and the University of California-Los Angeles.

The vehicle representing Stanford University won the $2 million first-place prize, completing the course in just under seven hours. The two vehicles representing Carnegie Mellon University came in second and third, crossing the finish line a few minutes apart in just over seven hours.

Both the Stanford and Carnegie Mellon teams included several members who are full-time engineers at sponsoring companies. The Stanford team’s Volkswagen Touareg was modified for the Grand Challenge by faculty, students and a large number of engineers from the Volkswagen of America Electronics Research Laboratory, Intel and other companies. The Carnegie Mellon team was comprised of faculty, students and professionals from corporate sponsors that included Caterpillar, Intel and SAIC.

The Stanford and Carnegie Mellon teams and vehicles were “superb,” Reinholtz said, “but our vehicles were developed by a small group of exceptionally dedicated graduate students working with about 40 undergraduate students enrolled for senior design or independent study credit.”

“We have good reason to be proud of our students and our program,” Reinholtz said. “We gave our best at every turn and the value of the experience and the historical significance of the event will not be lost on our young team.”

Virginia Tech mechanical engineering professor Alfred Wicks and graduate student Brett Leedy worked with Reinholtz and the team as co-advisers.

Cliff and Rocky, donated by Club Car, were equipped by the team with on-board computers that communicate with advanced sensing technology, including Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographical Information System data, radar, laser rangefinders and thermal imaging cameras. The team programmed the vehicles to interpret terrain and make all decisions about navigation, route planning and obstacle avoidance.

DARPA’s goal in sponsoring the Grand Challenge was to encourage university and industry engineering teams to help develop unmanned vehicles that the military can deploy in dangerous situations. The competing teams received no financial support from DARPA.

For more information about the Virginia Tech team and vehicles, visit their web site at