Wacky races: Pentagon funds race for driverless car

Deep in the Mojave desert, a robot revolution is under way. Driverless cars are competing for a $2m prize - and the Pentagon is signing the cheque. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent US

Lured by a $2m (£1.15m) prize offered by the Pentagon, teams from some of the United States' leading universities threw themselves into the challenge and watched their souped-up four-wheel drives and military vehicles negotiate tunnels, lake beds, a steep mountain pass and numerous rocks.

First across the finish line was a converted Volkswagen Touareg developed by engineers from Stanford University - the prime research institution in Silicon Valley which was previously the springboard for many of the innovations of the internet.

"The impossible has been achieved," Stanford's team leader, Sebastian Thrun, crowed as the vehicle, nicknamed Stanley, completed the course in a brisk seven and a half hours. "The dream of cars driving themselves is becoming a reality. Before, the question was whether it was possible. Now we know it is."

Professor Thrun's students cheered and threw him and a colleague on to their shoulders as they celebrated their feat at the finish line, in the casino town of Primm on the California-Nevada border.

Stanley seemed almost certain to pick up the prize money, but the result of the race was shrouded in mystery as a late-starting entry, from Wisconsin, was allowed to pause overnight so it could continue on the course in daylight yesterday.

Four vehicles, including Stanley, completed the course on Saturday, out of a field of 23 finalists. In all, 195 research teams put forward robot candidates for the race, although most were eliminated in heats at a racetrack in Los Angeles.

The outcome showed what a difference a year could make. In a similar event last year, none of the 15 starting vehicles was able to drive more than seven and a half miles before breaking down. Not only was the field larger this time round, but almost every finalist surpassed the performance of last year's leader, a vehicle called Sandstorm developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and based on the military transport vehicle, the Humvee.

A modified version of Sandstorm was back this year, and finished third. A second vehicle created at Carnegie Mellon, called H1ghlander - after the commercial H1 Hummer on which it was based - also completed the circuit and looked for most of the course to be the clear winner. Stanley overtook it just 30 miles from the finish.

The Pentagon has a direct interest in the development of robot cars and has set out to make 30 per cent of its ground vehicles driverless by 2015. The idea is not only to cut the number of human soldiers exposed to combat - the same "we fight, you die" attitude to warfare that began with the Clinton administration's heavy reliance on aerial bombardment in its campaigns in Kosovo and Iraw - but also to reduce the risks that are inherent in routine supply missions to the battlefront.

The US military has already made considerable headway in this direction with its air fleet, successfully using pilotless drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, and using them not only to fly missions but, occasionally, to fire weaponry.

The robot race was sponsored by the Pentagon department known as Darpa, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, responsible for the early research behind the internet (initially known as Darpanet).

It was Darpa's determination that saw the quantum leap in this year's robot races. The agency made the course harder this year and doubled the taxpayer-funded prize to spur innovation and development of remote control-free robots that could be used in the battlefield.

To some people, the development of robot fighters suggests a future not unlike the one imagined in the Terminator movies - where highly sophisticated machines are turned into merciless killers unburdened by considerations of conscience or their mortality. When the head of Darpa, Anthony Tether, was asked about this by reporters on the scene, he chose to sidestep the question. "We took that first step back in the 1880s, when the first computers were put together," he said.

Several participants in the robot race pointed out that the development of reliable driverless vehicles could also have multiple civilian applications. Politicians and urban planners who tear out their hair about deaths and injuries on the roads are likely to take a vivid interest in technology that could lead to an accident-free environment, or something close to it.

Such visions are for the future. In the dust and heat of the Mojave, participants succumbed to the raw excitement of the moment, likening it to the watershed of the Wright brothers' first flight.

Each participating team was given a CD-rom with precise co-ordinates mapping out the route. The roads chosen were deliberately rough and challenging, including three tunnels designed to challenge the limits of the entries' Global Positioning systems and other directional devices. The vehicles were decked out with the latest sensors, lasers, cameras and radar feeding information to onboard computers. This helps vehicles make intelligent decisions such as distinguishing a dangerous boulder from a tumbleweed and calculating whether a chasm is too deep to cross.

To ensure safety, a judge in the chase vehicle could pause a robot during the race, stopping the 10-hour clock without a penalty. The judge also could press a kill switch if the robot headed towards danger, ending its chances of winning.

Nonetheless, the vehicles that failed to finish either crashed into an obstacle or veered off the route. A few lost their sensor devices - strapped to the roof or the back - as the rough terrain caused one jolt too many.

One popular finisher was a converted Ford Escape with a hybrid petrol-electric engine. It had been built by students from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, who qualified for the race despite the upheavals of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed many of their homes. Their vehicle came in fourth.