A Personal Account of the Development of Stanley, the Robot That Won the DARPA Grand Challenge

Sebastian Thrun


This article is my personal account on the work at Stanford on Stanley, the winning robot in the DARPA Grand Challenge. Between July 2004 and October 2005, my then-postdoc Michael Montemerlo and I led a team of students, engineers, and professionals with the single vision of claiming one of the most prestigious trophies in the field of robotics: the DARPA Grand Challenge (DARPA 2004). The Grand Challenge, organized by the U.S. government, was unprecedented in the nation's history. It was the first time that the U.S. Congress had appropriated a cash price for advancing technological innovation. My team won this prize, competing with some 194 other teams. Stanley was the fastest of five robotic vehicles that, on October 8, 2005, successfully navigated a 131.6-mile-long course through California's Mojave Desert. This essay is not about the technology behind our success; for that I refer the interested reader to recent articles on the technical aspects of Stanley. Instead, this is my personal story of leading the Stanford Racing Team. It is the story of a team of people who built an autonomous robot in record time. It is also a success story for the field of artificial intelligence, as Stanley used some state of the art AI methods in areas such as probabilistic inference, machine learning, and computer vision. Of course, it is also the story of a step towards a technology that, one day, might fundamentally change our lives.

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