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Penn’s Autonomous Car “Little Ben” Advances to the Semi-Finals
September 25, 2007, Volume 54, No. 5


Little Ben
“Little Ben,” the autonomous vehicle engineered by University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University faculty and students to drive itself, has advanced to the semi-finals of the Urban Challenge National Qualification Event sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD).

The “souped-up” Toyota Prius will now compete in the national qualifying trials on October 26-31 in Victorville, California. The top 20 finishers will advance to the finals on November 3, where they must safely drive themselves through a 60-mile urban course in less than six hours, obeying traffic laws while merging into moving traffic, negotiating intersections and avoiding obstacles. The three fastest finishers will receive cash prizes of $2 million, $1 million and $500,000. Of the 89 original entrants, only 36 advanced to the semifinals.

“Little Ben” is the product of the Ben Franklin Racing Team, a consortium led by Penn, with partners Lehigh and Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories. The Ben Franklin Racing Team’s goal is “to build fast, reliable, safe and autonomous vehicles that will revolutionize transportation systems in urban environments. We will leverage state-of-the-art advances in sensing, control theory, machine learning, automotive technology and artificial advantages to build robotic cars.” Videos of “Little Ben” are at

DARPA selected the Ben Franklin Racing Team to participate in the semi-finals after a successful demonstration on July 8 at Lehigh in Bethelem, PA. “Little Ben” navigated a four-way intersection, followed basic navigation and traffic laws, avoided obstacles and reacted intelligently to events. The car also successfully interacted with other vehicles by passing at appropriate times and demonstrated an understanding of intersection precedence.
“It’s extremely gratifying to take knowledge from the classroom and see it at work in the field,” said  Dr. Dan Lee, team leader and associate professor of electrical and systems engineering. “But we have our work cut out for us to prepare for the upcoming race.”

Penn participants hail from the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab (GRASP), housed in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. The GRASP Lab is an inter-disciplinary research center with expertise drawn from the departments of computer and information science, electrical and systems engineering and mechanical engineering and applied mechanics. 

DARPA holds the Urban Challenge to foster the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology to save lives on the battlefield. The agency manages and directs basic and applied research and development projects for DoD and pursues research and technology that provides dramatic advances in support of military missions. Additional information on Grand Challenge is available at

Almanac - September 25, 2007, Volume 54, No. 5