PHOTOPHILE- Designated driverless: Robot 'Tommy Jr.' gets farewell beer-fest

If you're tired of being the designated driver, you should have been at Starr Hill Brewery on Saturday, October 6, to see robot cars, or  "bots," designed by Paul Perrone and his Team Jefferson of Perrone Robotics.

Their latest creation, Tommy Jr., is a modified, self-driving Toyota Scion that will compete in this month's "Urban Challenge," a 60-mile simulation of city driving conditions, including parallel parking, stopping at lights, merging with traffic, and avoiding pedestrians– all with no human control. Team Jefferson is one of 35 semi-finalists competing for the event's $2 million first prize sponsored by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Perrone says his team has spent 1/100th of what some of his competitors have, leaving Team Jefferson in the position of "strongest underdog"– but an underdog "with a good chance at winning."

At least part of this low-budget approach stems from the company's philosophy of commercial integration. "We aren't just doing this for research or fun," says Perrone. "We want to see this applied."

For the Pentagon, the winning technology may have military applications– putting robots where no human dares to tread. But Perrone explains that it also has uses in farming, industry, and as safety overlays on current automobiles. Team member David Rusbarsky goes one step farther, predicting that within 10 years our cars will be driving us. 

Most of the guests at Starr Hill, now located on the edge of Crozet, still had to be driven home by a human, but if, like Team Jefferson, you already own a "bot" with Elvis at the wheel, police sobriety checks are obviously not a concern. Another beer, anyone?

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