Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team plans to roll out a leaner and meaner successor to its driverless Boss SUV by the end of the year.

The team's first Boss won DARPA's 2007 Urban Challenge, which pitted autonomous autos against one another in a race through simulated city traffic. Tartan is now choosing the make and model of the vehicle that will carry all sorts of the latest lasers, cameras, and other gizmos needed to navigate the world without a human in the cockpit.

Boss 2 will serve as the test bed for a number of new autonomous driving technologies, says Raj Rajkumar, a professor in Carnegie Mellon's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and co-director of the school's General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Information Technology Collaborative Research Lab. Although the details have yet to be worked out, the next project could include technology that allows cars to communicate with one another and with traffic signals to help avoid accidents. Rajkumar also wants to experiment with building redundancy into the car's mechanical systems, so if one component (such as the brakes) fails, there's a backup system that can take over. Boss 2 will also likely be able to drive faster than 40 miles (64.4 kilometers) per hour (Boss's current top speed).

Tartan fashioned the original Boss, named for legendary GM inventor Charles “Boss” Kettering, from a Chevy Tahoe. "Chevy wanted to promote the Tahoe, and the vehicle's height also helped," Rajkumar says. "For this reason, the next vehicle will also be an SUV, but possibly a hybrid." A Chevy Tahoe hybrid is the frontrunner to become Boss 2, he said, although the team is evaluating other SUVs as well.

The original Boss isn't headed for the scrap heap just yet. Rajkumar and his colleagues are using the vehicle to develop a "virtual valet" system that would allow a car to be driven manually or automatically. Imagine driving your car to the mall and turning over control to a computer to navigate safely through the parking lot. Outfitted with 64 lasers, radar, LIDAR (light detection and ranging), cameras, GPS sensors and accelerometers, Boss would be a whole lot better at avoiding hazards than most humans we know.

DARPA has no plans for hosting another autonomous vehicle competition. In 2007, Boss beat out a field of 10 rivals on a course that tested their ability to obey the rules of the road while avoiding obstacles such as parked cars. Boss won the $2 million prize by averaging about 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) per hour over approximately 55 miles (88.5 kilometers), finishing the course about 20 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher from Stanford University.

Image © Tartan Racing/Carnegie Mellon