Our interview today is with Sundar Sundareswaran, Assistant Director of Information Sciences at Teledyne Scientific and Imaging. Sundar is the program manager responsible for the Teledyne participation in Team Oshkosh (www.terramax.com), one of the entries into last weekend's DARPA Urban Challenge. DARPA's Urban Challenge is a robotic race which pits fully autonomous vehicles against one another in an urban landscape. Team Oshkosh (formerly known as Team Terramax), is using an immense, military truck platform, the Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR), which is used by the U.S. Marine Corp, as its vehicle. The team did not win the race over the weekend, but we thought it would be interesting nonetheless to get some insight into the future of fully robotic vehicles. Teledyne Scientific is headquartered in Thousand Oaks, and the other companies working on the robot are Oshkosh, IBEO Automotive Sensor GmbH, the University of Parma, and Auburn University. Sundar spoke with socalTECH's Ben Kuo.
How long has this truck been under development?
Sundar Sundareswaran: This truck, from start to what you see here, has been in development for eighteen months. The physical work started a little later than that, but it's a little over eighteen months.
I know you were in the DARPA Grand Challenge, why did you decide to continue on with the Urban Challenge?
Sundar Sundareswaran: The Urban Challenge was the next logical step for this kind of vehicle. If you look at places like Iraq and Afghanistan, trucks drive from Point A to Point B. In the process, they go through the desert, semi-urban, and urban environments. So, realistically, when these vehicles are fully autonomous, should be able to deal with not only the desert type environment as well as urban type environment.
How far do you think we are from having this kind of vehicle out on a battlefield someplace?
Sundar Sundareswaran: Technically we are very close. Technically I would say we're 80 percent there. Logistically, and politically, and all the other factors that go into procurement, we're probably farther than that. I would say this vehicle could be in operation in theater in under 10 years.
What's the biggest technical challenge right now?
Sundar Sundareswaran: The biggest technical challenge, from what we have done so far, is the ability to perceive things, and see things, and act intelligently. What we have not done so far, is the ability to recognize pedestrians and people coming in front of it. This truck can stop very fast, it was designed to stop in incredibly short distances -- even more so than commercial vehicles. So from that perspective, it's a safe vehicle to be around as long as it sees you are there.
Tell me a little bit about your vehicle choice. All of the other teams in the race have small, or fairly small cars or SUVs. Why the big truck?
Sundar Sundareswaran: The big truck is a real vehicle. It's something the military would want. You could have an SUV, but realistically, what can you do with an SUV on a military mission? You might potentially have soldiers who can fall asleep and move around, but realistically the big thing the military moves around is logistics. Water bottles, ammunition, and whatever they have to move from point to point. That's the biggest point on the logistical chain--you've got to be able to deal with that. You need to have a truck.
This truck is shorter than the one you had during the Grand Challenge, is that correct?
Sundar Sundareswaran: That is correct. We needed to be able to make a U-turn on a city street. In order to do that, we had to do a couple of things. One was to take out the rear axle, and we also added four wheel steering.
So what's next for your team?
Sundar Sundareswaran: There are two potential paths forward. If there is another challenge we'll be back to compete, to win. The other would be the government might be interested in taking a vehicle like this and starting to do real field trials. We'll be there to participate in anything like that.