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The Great Race 

25 cars, no drivers, racing toward Las Vegas for a $1 million prize — and the future of the U.S. military

Thursday, Mar 4 2004
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Photos by Ryan Donahue

Bob is having a bad day. Rain has left a slick of water across the asphalt, and reflections bouncing off the surface are confusing his sensors. Directed to avoid a simple barrier, he loops past it, then proceeds to drive in circles like a puppy chasing its tail. A collective guffaw goes up from his handlers, a group of Caltech students who have taken on the mind-numbingly difficult task of trying to build an autonomous robotic vehicle. Bob is a car — a 1996 Chevy Tahoe to be precise — that can drive by itself. Or at least that’s the idea. Soon the reflections are affecting its ability to steer, and Bob is veering badly to the left, having previously demonstrated perfect aim. Dave van Gogh, the team’s manager, shakes his head stoically. Bob, it seems, is discombobulated.

In 10 days’ time, and assuming it passes the qualifying trials, Bob will enter the first great race of the 21st century, the DARPA Grand Challenge, which calls for a vehicle to drive itself from Barstow to Vegas (some 200 miles) in under 10 hours. Team Caltech is one of 25 groups that have signed on for this tournament, which will pit robotics researchers against industrial engineers, high school students, hot rodders, battle-bot builders, and a guy in Berkeley who is making the task even more insane by halving the number of wheels — his vehicle is a motorbike.

The DARPA Grand Challenge, or DGC as it’s known, was conceived by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a response to a congressional mandate that by 2015 one-third of ground-combat vehicles should operate autonomously. Over the past decade, DARPA has handed out millions of dollars to military contractors and university departments to research unmanned vehicles, yet the agency has gotten precious little return on this investment. Surely the great American entrepreneurial spirit could be brought to bear on the problem. As DARPA project manager Colonel Jose Negron told The New York Times last October, the feeling was that “There are solutions out there in the community and nation that people weren’t offering, because they don’t deal with the military complex. So we are inviting little mom-and-pop folks out there to help spur advancement and take us where we need to be.” The incentive: a million dollars, plus the bragging rights — which for some of the competitors is worth even more.

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Next week at the California Speedway in Fontana, all DGC challengers will be put through their paces in the grueling Qualifying Inspection and Demonstration round, in which each vehicle will have to show that it can autonomously navigate a one-and-a-half-mile course littered with obstacles. Only those that make it through will be allowed forward to the actual race, which starts at the Slash X Café near Barstow on March 13. It so happens that halfway through the qualifying week, term finals begin at Caltech, which sums up the problem van Gogh is facing. “It’s pretty hard to get students to do anything when they’ve got assignments and exams,” he says. Then again, “The great thing about Caltech students is they aren’t afraid to try anything.” And so it is that on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the car park of the Santa Anita raceway, engineering professor Richard Murray and seven students are sitting in a tent hunched over their laptops, trying to decipher what’s going on in the “brain” of a highly computerized but decidedly feral SUV.

 

CALTECH hardly counts as a mom-and-pop shop; the team has more than $400,000 in sponsorship, much of it from Northrop Grumman. It’s also getting help from scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the folks who built the Mars rovers. Bob is actually using some of the same algorithms the rovers use, so he shares, as it were, a genetic heritage with the intrepid bots now boring away at rocks on the red planet. But where the rovers only have to move 100 feet a day, to complete the Grand Challenge Bob will have to average 20 miles an hour — more than 9 meters a second! All that while avoiding boulders, trees, embankments and abandoned cars.

The race is being held across the desert, the bulk of it on dirt backroads. Participants will be told the final route only two hours before the race, at which time they’ll be given a CD with the GPS coordinates defining the actual course. Teams will have to input those data and make any final adjustments before handing their vehicle over to DARPA personnel. During the race there can be no contact with the vehicle, and in some sections vehicles will be required to remain within a corridor as narrow as 10 feet — any straying will result in immediate disqualification.

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