Code Style Guide

This section defines a style guide which should be followed by all code that is written in Drake. Being consistent with this style will make the code easier to read, debug, and maintain. To ensure your code is style compliant, consider using tools for complying with coding style.

See also the brief Code Review Checklist, where a list of the most frequent problems are collected.

Note: Many of the files in the repository were written before this style guide, or did not follow it precisely. If you find style errors, go ahead and change it and submit a pull request.

C++ Style

Drake strictly follows the Google C++ Style Guide except for the specific clarifications, exceptions, and additional rules noted below.


  • Always prefer long, human-readable variable/method/class names to short acronyms.

  • Manually provide user gradients only when we know more than AutoDiffScalar possibly could (e.g. sparsity of the gradients).

  • For the Exceptions style rule, we clarify as follows. Throwing exceptions is permitted and encouraged for error handling. Unit tests may catch exceptions using EXPECT_THROW if the exception is documented in the API. Otherwise, catching exceptions is forbidden. For more context, see PR #3759.

    • We allow exceptions to be thrown because it enables a more detailed description of the error to be provided relative to an assert statement.
    • Note: This is a work-in-progress rule, but captures our currently-in-effect style. We are open to discussion on additional uses for exceptions if and when the need arises.
  • No dynamic allocation in the inner simulation/control loops. Code should be still be thread-safe (e.g. be careful with pre-allocations).

  • Classes and methods should be documented using Doxygen.

    • Only use Doxygen special comment blocks (comments declared with /// or /**) on published APIs (public or protected classes and methods). Code with private access or declared in .cc files should not use the Doxygen block format. However, note that markup such as @return may still be used for non-Doxygen (// or /*) comment blocks when it improves readability of the source code for developers, even though it will never be processed by Doxygen.
    • If you decide to use Doxygen formatting hints, then those must render correctly. For instructions on how to generate the Doxygen website, click here. For additional background information, see PR #3584.
    • Prefer Doxygen comment blocks that are readable in both a rendered and un-rendered state. This could mean foregoing the most beautiful LaTeX formatting for some serviceable text equations readable in the code. Or, you may want to augment beautiful-but-unreadable formatting with a simplified presentation of the same information to accommodate future programmers, who are likely to only see the header file. For more background information, see PR #3584.
  • Embrace templates/C++14 when it makes the code more correct (more clear or more readable also implies more correct). Minimize template requirements on public interfaces. Avoid explicit template instantiations in cc files when possible.

  • For the order of includes style rule, separate each category of #include statements with a blank line. Then, accept whatever clang-format enforces.

  • The Function Names rule specifies that the names of “very cheap” methods may be all lower-case with underscores between words. It defines “very cheap” as a method that you wouldn’t hesitate calling from within a loop. We clarify that this method should have a time complexity of O(1) and be less than 5 lines long.

  • The test file for the library declarations in drake/foo/bar.h should be drake/foo/test/ (#2182)

  • When using Integer Types within Drake, unsigned types are forbidden, with the following exceptions (per #2514):

    • uint32_t or uint64_t are allowed for bitfields, and
    • size_t is allowed when a (1) non-Drake API uses unsigned types, and (2) casting to a signed type during Drake’s interactions with the non-Drake API would obscure the readability of our code, and (3) subtraction underflow below zero is obviously not at risk.
  • When using Integer Types within Drake, ptrdiff_t is forbidden, with the following exceptions (per #2514):

    • ptrdiff_t is allowed when doing arithmetic on bare pointers (this is very rare). Do not use it as a generic “large signed integer” type, nor as a generic “index into a matrix” type.
  • For the Use of const style rule, we clarify that:

    • A class member variable must be declared const if it is not modified after the class is constructed, and

    • You must not use const in a function declaration where it adds no meaning. That occurs in pass-by-value parameter declarations, where const int i and int i mean the same thing, and in return-by-value declarations, where int f() and const int f() are also synonymous. You may add const to such parameter declarations in the function definition, where it does indicate that the implementation will not modify its own copy of the parameter value. The C++ standard explicitly states that the signatures are identical with or without the const in these cases, see Overloadable declarations. (This applies to volatile also.)

      If you want to declare and define a function in one place, you have several options:

      • Forgo marking the parameters as const (not a great loss for short functions defined inline), or
      • create some const local variables initialized to the supplied parameter values (likely to be optimized away by the compiler), or
      • split the declaration and definition (be sure to add the inline keyword if the function would otherwise have been implicitly inlined).
  • For the Pointer and Reference Expressions Rule, we clarify as follows. When declaring a pointer or a reference, the “*” and “&” symbols must be next to the variable type, not the variable name. In other words use “const MyClass& foo;” instead of “const MyClass &foo;”. This is what is enforced by clang-format. For additional context, see this comment thread.


  • Method names may violate Google standards and the “long, human-readable” standard above if a short, non-compliant name more closely matches the common conventions of the field. For instance, the matrix portion of a linear complementarity constraint is traditionally ‘M’ (one letter, upper-case); it is not mandatory to downcase it or give it a more verbose name.
  • No need for a copyright line at the top of every file (this will change soon, see: issue #1805).
  • While we encourage you to Include What You Use (IWYU) since it improves code transparency and readability, it will not be strictly enforced. Instead, we enforce a “weak include” style that simply requires every symbol referenced within a file be covered by the transitive closure of all #include statements in the file. We decided to make this exception because (1) we can always adopt an IWYU rule later, (2) to reduce verbosity, and (3) we don’t have a tool to enforce IWYU at this time.
  • We do not follow The #define Guard rule and instead use #pragma once. The advantages of using #pragma once are (1) it does not need to be updated each time the name of the header file changes, and (2) it prevents silly mistakes that occur when a developer copy-pastes a header file and forgets to update its #define guard. The known drawbacks of using #pragma once, namely the possibility of lack of compiler support and compiler-dependent-behavior, is mitigated since Drake has a limited set of officially supported platform configurations on which correct behavior will be guaranteed. (#2104)
  • We have an exception to the Implicit Conversions rule. For readability and consistency with external libraries like Eigen, we allow one-argument constructors without the explicit tag (implicit cast operators) if both types involved implement basic arithmetic operators commonly used in arithmetic exceptions (at minimum +, both unary and binary -, binary *, and ==). This lets us write concise mathematical expressions using math-like objects without a proliferation of static_cast<> statements. (For context, see #2231)
  • The Self-contained headers rule may be disobeyed when implementing the C++ *-inl.h files pattern in its exact form.

Additional Rules

  • Use the GTEST prefix in unit test declarations. For instance, use GTEST_TEST(Group, Name) instead of TEST(Group, Name). (#2181)
  • Always use in-class member initialization for built-in data types that would would otherwise be uninitialized, including numerical types, pointers, and enumerations. The syntax int count_{}; (called value initialization) ensures that these types are zero-initialized rather than left with unpredictable content (informally known as “garbage”). You may also provide explicit values such as bool flag_{false}; (for clarity) or bool uninitialized_{true}; (because zero is the wrong initial value). You should always provide a value for enum members since zero might not be one of the allowed enumerations. Class objects are responsible for their own construction so they do not need to be member-initialized, but you can do so if the default constructor does not provide the behavior you want. Note that fixed-size Eigen objects are intentionally left uninitialized; if you want yours zero-initialized you can member-initialize it by passing an appropriate Zero, for example: Eigen::Matrix3d mat_{Eigen::Matrix3d::Zero()};.
  • After including <cstddef>, assume that size_t is defined in the global namespace. Do not preface it with std:: and do not write using std::size_t in your code. There is a hypothetical possibility that this won’t work on some compiler someday but we deem the risk acceptable in trade for allowing this common, clutter-reducing practice. For discussion, see stackoverflow and Drake #2374.
  • Rules for assertions:
    • Never use assert() from <cassert>.
    • Use DRAKE_ASSERT( condition ) to compile and assert only in debug builds.
    • Use DRAKE_DEMAND( condition ) to assert in any kind of build (including release).
    • When checking for nonnullness, either DRAKE_DEMAND(ptr) or DRAKE_DEMAND(ptr != nullptr) is allowed; use whichever seems clearer in context.
    • When failing unconditionally, never use DRAKE_ASSERT(false); instead, use DRAKE_ABORT().
    • For discussion, see Drake #1935 and #3355.
  • The main() method should be as brief as possible since it exists outside of namespace drake. It should simply call another method that is appropriately namespaced within namespace drake. The method can be called “main()” since it is allowed by the style guide’s exceptions to naming rules, though other method names like “exec()” are also acceptable.

Python Style

Drake Python code uses Python 2.7.

Drake strictly follows PEP 8 – Style Guide for Python Code except for the specific clarifications, exceptions, and additional rules noted below. Since PEP 8 incorporates PEP 257 – Docstring Conventions, Drake follows its recommendations as well.

In addition, Drake recommends use of pylint for automatic error checking. See tools for complying with coding style for full guidance.

Sadly pylint does not check all the conditions enumerated by PEP 8. Therefore, Drake recommends the use of as well. See tools for complying with coding style for details.`


  • External, third-party, and auto-generated source files are not to be checked for style.
  • Always prefer long, human-readable variable/method/class names to short acronyms.


  • Lines containing a long URL may be longer than 80 columns if necessary to avoid splitting the URL.

Additional Rules

  • When importing in-tree modules, always use absolute import paths; explicit relative import paths are disallowed. See the PEP 8 discussion of imports for more detail.

  • Sometimes files are necessary, for Python’s import mechanism; these files should be non-empty (via a copyright notice, for example). Rationale: 0-byte files can be mistakenly perceived as the result of some error or accident.

  • When using the logging module, avoid its lazy-formatting syntax. Rationale: exceptions raised in lazy formatting get printed to stderr, but are otherwise ignored, and thus may escape notice.

  • Executable files should use the following “shebang” line:

    #!/usr/bin/env python

    Rationale: /usr/bin/env enables a PATH search for python. On OSX systems configured for Drake, this gives a better result than /usr/bin/python.


  • All of the above rules still hold as relevant (e.g. variable names).

  • A short list of variable name exceptions for common acronyms:
    • rpy or somethingRPY (for roll-pitch-yaw)
  • All classes and methods should be commented with Doxygen compatible formatting (using the tags @param to describe each input, @option to describe the elements of an option structure, @retval to describe each output, and @default to describe default values for an input. Class methods need not document the trivial first input argument (which is the class object) with a @param tag.

  • Calls to MATLAB class member functions in speed critical loops for classes which overload subsref use memberFunc(obj,...) instead of obj.memberFunc(...). This is because obj.member calls the subsref method, which is only notably slower for classes which have overloaded subsref. All other calls should use obj.memberFunc(...).

  • All methods that are outside runtime execution loops begin by checking their inputs (e.g. with typecheck,`sizecheck`,`rangecheck`,etc). Methods that get called repeatedly inside a simulation or optimization loop should not perform these checks.

  • All methods (including mex) should treat nargout==0 as if we received nargout==1

  • The codeCheck utility will run mlint on the code with appropriate warnings disabled. Eventually, the code should pass this check (but we’re still far from it)

Java Style

We also strictly follow the Google Java Style Guide. Here are some additional comments:

  • Every class and method should have a brief _javadoc_ associated with it.

  • All Java classes should be in packages relative to the Drake root,

    e.g.: package drake.examples.Pendulum

LCM Style

  • LCM types are under_scored with a leading lcmt_ added. If the type is specific to a particular robot, then it begins with lcmt_robotname_.
  • Variable names in LCM types follow the rules above.

package.xml Style

Robot Operating System (ROS) organizes code and data into packages. Each package is located in its own directory, which contains a file called package.xml. The official instructions on what this file should contain is given here. Drake uses this same file for defining and finding packages. Specifically, it is searched for by populatePackageMap(). Note that package.xml files are necessary even if you’re not using Drake with ROS because the model files used by Drake (e.g., URDF and SDF), frequently refer to resources like mesh files via a package:// syntax, whose full paths are resolved by the package.xml files.

When adding a model to Drake (typically in drake-distro/drake/examples/), you will need to add a package.xml file to the example’s directory to enable modeling files like URDF and SDF to refer to resources like mesh files contained within the example’s directory. While a full package.xml file that contains every required field would be ideal, for Drake’s purposes, the following minimal package.xml file is sufficient:

This XML file is used by:

<package format="2">

In the above example, replace “package_name” with the name of your package. This is typically the name of the directory holding the package.xml file.

Version numbers

We’ll adopt the following convention for version numbers in Drake: The version number will have the format W.X.Y.Z where

  • W = major release number
  • X = minor release number
  • Y = development stage*
  • Z = build

Development stage is one of four values:

  • 0 = alpha (buggy, not for use)
  • 1 = beta (mostly bug-free, needs more testing)
  • 2 = release candidate (rc) (stable)
  • 3 = release

Z (build) is optional. This is probably not needed but could just refer to the revision of the repository at the time of snapshot. Numbered versions should be referenced via tags.