Image: Team Jefferson
Francis Specker  /  AP
An autonomous vehicle made by a team from Charlottesville, Va., named Team Jefferson, navigates a course during the DARPA Grand Challenge at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on Wednesday. Forty-three teams are vying for 20 spots in the Oct. 8 final.
updated 9/28/2005 11:35:36 PM ET 2005-09-29T03:35:36

It’s the ultimate robot reality show: 43 contestants battling for a spot in a government-sponsored desert race intended to speed development of unmanned military combat vehicles.

The reward? A $2 million cash prize.

The autonomous robotic vehicles began competing Wednesday in the first of a series of qualifying rounds at the California Speedway. Half will advance to the Oct. 8 starting line of the so-called Grand Challenge.

The grueling, weeklong semifinals are designed to test the vehicles’ ability to cover a roughly 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) stretch of the track without a human driver or remote control.

Participants ranging from souped-up SUVs to military behemoths will be graded on how well they can self-drive on rough road, make sharp turns and avoid obstacles — hay bales, trash cans, wrecked cars — while relying on GPS navigation and sensors, radar, lasers and cameras that feed information to computers.

The robots also have to heed speed limits in certain zones and pass through a 100-foot-long (30-meter-long) tunnel designed to temporarily knock out their GPS capabilities.

Cheers from the crowd
None of that thwarted the first competitor, a converted Nissan Xterra built by the Colorado-based Mojavaton team. The vehicle finished in about 20 minutes to cheers from the grandstands.

A modified Volkswagen Touareg dubbed Stanley raised the bar by navigating the course almost flawlessly in about 10 minutes. It was followed by a custom-built vehicle called NaviGATOR, a collaboration between the University of Florida, Gainsville and Autonomous Solutions Inc.

“It went exactly as I had predicted,” said Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor at Stanford University, which built Stanley. “I knew exactly how it would react.”

A series of vehicles that came afterward stumbled and had to be manually driven off the speedway. One vehicle tried to go around two pieces of metal guardrail instead of between it and stalled. Another made an erroneous right turn at the start and rammed into the wall.

Vehicles have at least two chances to loop around the speedway during the qualifiers. The 20 finalists will be announced next week.

Of the 16 vehicles that ran the course, seven finished.

During last year’s semifinals, no vehicle completed the course in the first day. Eventually, only seven entrants completed a flat, 1.4-mile (2.25-kilometer) obstacle course. But eight others that failed were allowed to advance. Organizers expect most vehicles this year to finish the qualifying course.

Military purpose
The Grand Challenge is sponsored by the research arm of the Pentagon known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which is spending $9 million on this year’s event.

The competition is part of the Pentagon’s efforts to have a third of the military’s ground vehicles unmanned by 2015 to fulfill a congressional mandate.

This year’s race will cover about 150 miles (240 kilometers) of desert and mountainous terrain looping to and from Primm, Nev. While the exact route is kept secret until hours before the race, vehicles can expect to drive over rough desert roads, maneuver mountain trails and pass dry lake beds.

The first vehicle to traverse the entire course in less than 10 hours wins. If no one finishes — a possible outcome — DARPA may sponsor another competition.

History of the challenge
Last year’s inaugural race in the Mojave Desert ended without a winner when all the entrants broke down before the finish line. The best performer was a converted Humvee built by Carnegie Mellon University, which traveled only 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) before having engine trouble.

This year, Carnegie Mellon entered two vehicles, an improved Sandstorm and a converted Hummer called H1ghlander. The latter, which signals its presence by fire siren sounds, ran the course in about 10 minutes Wednesday, but sideswiped a couple of obstacles.

DARPA officials and team leaders contend that this year’s field is far more competitive. Some vehicles already have driven hundreds of continuous miles in the Southwest desert during practice runs, including several that tested on last year’s race course.

The semifinalists, from more than a dozen U.S. states and Canada, were selected from a pool of about 200 entrants, which doubled from last year. They include a mix of computer programmers, mechanical engineers, college students, hot-rodders and off-road enthusiasts. Many teams are backed by corporate sponsors.

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