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Little Ben, the robot car, comes up big in contest

The Penn-Lehigh entry goes on to the next round.

Little Ben passed his screen test.

Ben, a Toyota Prius customized by students at the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University, is one of 53 entries advancing to the next round of an international robot-car competition.

The Penn-Lehigh team learned it had made the cut on Friday after submitting video of the car in action to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Other teams still in the game include Princeton University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon - which partnered with the General Motors and Caterpillar corporations.

Moorestown resident Mike Selzler, a software developer who was working on an entry all by himself, dropped out.

"I ran out of time and money," he said.

The DARPA Urban Challenge will be held Nov. 3 at a still-secret location in the American West. The unmanned vehicles must complete a 60-mile course, navigating with lasers, cameras and other onboard sensors - and no input from their human handlers.

Little Ben's journey has not been without hardship. A day after a winter storm in February, the car was struck by ice that fell from a rooftop. Students heard the ice starting to fall and ran to safety in time, but both the hood and windshield had to be replaced, said team adviser Dan Lee, an associate engineering professor at Penn.

Over the summer, race officials will be making site visits to Little Ben and others among the original 89 entrants whose videos passed muster. Semifinalists are to be announced in August; finalists will emerge from a qualification event in October.

Lee says his team still has a lot to do. With only 10 core members, including two from sponsor Lockheed Martin, the Penn-Lehigh team is less than half the size of some.

"This is a big project," Lee says. "We've got our work cut out for us."

See video and more about Little Ben at