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Apple's Tiger drives a car

Prototype automated auto is powered by Power Mac G5s running OS X

Apple technology is at the centre of a new fully-autonomous vehicle developed for a major US competition.

Team Banzai is one of 40 groups selected from 118 entrants from around North America to have made it through to the semi-finals of the 2005 Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge.

Darpa is the central research and development organisation for the US Department of Defense.

The team came up with its Tiger-powered customised Touareg car (nicknamed Dora) using Mac OS X technologies for development and race management.

Power Mac G5s running OS X inside the car control electronic pistons and belts to control the steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals and gear stick.

In order to navigate, Dora follows a series of GPS waypoints, while an array of sensors – radar, video cameras, sonar and lasers – check terrain and assess likely obstacles.

The 40 semi-finalists had to prove their self-controlled vehicles could navigate themselves through a narrow 200m course that included turns and randomly placed obstacles.

The vehicles will compete against each other in the National Qualification Event at the California Speedway in Fontana from September 27 to October 5 2005. Then 20 of the 40 semi-finalists will get to compete for $2m in the Grand Challenge event on 8 October 2005.

The whole project is a field test of robotic ground vehicles. The Grand Challenge event itself will see the vehicles travel 150 miles across "rugged desert roads using only on-board sensors and navigation equipment to find and follow the route and avoid obstacles”, according to Darpa.

The group’s director, Dr Anthony Tether, said: "The high quality of vehicle performance that we witnessed during the site visits is truly impressive. We are thrilled by the sheer excitement about developing autonomous ground vehicles that the Grand Challenge has sparked among people."

There's a clear Apple connection to this attempt: Team Banzai is led by Dr John Choi, founder of the Banzai Research Institute. At one time in his career, Dr Choi was a software designer at NeXT and Apple.

Also on the team is Dr Bing Chen, who is currently a senior consulting engineer at Apple, also a former NeXT developer. Next on the team is Kenny Leung, also a former campus consultant for NeXT and software engineer at Apple.

The team includes telecoms experience, too – Mario Diez, who is currently a senior engineer at Ericsson Wireless Systems.

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