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Stanford team wins robot race

A driverless Volkswagen won a $2 million race across the rugged Nevada desert Sunday.
Stanford Racing Team's leader Sebastian Thrun holds a $2 million check as he catches a ride on top of Stanley, a tricked-out Volkswagen Touareg R5 after his team was declared the official winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge 2005.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stanley, the Volkswagen Touareg that won a $2 million desert road race all on its own — in a sense — bears a logo that plays off its manufacturer’s slogan.

“Drivers not required.”

The robotic SUV finished first in a 132-mile trek across the rugged and twisting Nevada desert, in what may be an early step toward getting vehicles to do their own driving for everything from war-zone supply missions to morning commutes.

“This is no longer a hobby,” said Anthony Tether, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which organized the race. “We’re talking about technology that has a real mission.”

Having self-thinking vehicles that drive themselves on the freeway or battlefield is still years from reality. But Stanford computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, who led the winning team, said this was a step in the right direction.

Thrun said the race proved that vehicles can navigate a tough course without a single human command — so long as they have the latest sensors, lasers, radar and cameras that feed information to on-board computers.

Stanley zipped through the Mojave Desert course in six hours and 53 minutes Saturday, using only its computer brain and sensors to navigate rough and twisting desert and mountain trails.

In second place was a red Humvee from Carnegie Mellon University called Sandstorm, followed by a customized Hummer called H1ghlander. Coming in fourth was a Ford Escape Hybrid named Kat-5, designed by students in Metairie, La., who lost about a week of practice and some lost their homes when Hurricane Katrina blew into the Gulf Coast.

The Humvee, which finished in seven hours and four minutes, traveled farther than any other vehicle last year despite completing only 7½ miles of the course.

A fifth vehicle, a 16-ton truck named TerraMax, was the last to finish the course Sunday, though not within the contest’s 10-hour deadline. Its operators paused it Saturday night so it wouldn’t have to race in darkness.

It’s unclear how the Pentagon plans to harness the technology used in the race for military applications. Thrun said he wanted to design automated systems to make next-generation cars safer for everyone, not just the military.

“If it was only for the military, I wouldn’t be here today,” Thrun said.

Volkswagen plans to use Stanley in promotions, and the vehicle will then be retired to a museum in Germany, Thrun said.

The Stanford team has a replica of Stanley that it plans to use to study how it can make the vehicle autonomous on freeways. Thrun said Stanley currently cannot handle self-driving in traffic.

Called the Grand Challenge, the race began Saturday with a field of 23 autonomous vehicles. Eighteen failed to complete the course because of mechanical failures or sensor problems. Even so, most covered more distance than Sandstorm did last year.

Race organizers and team members say improved technology and a familiarity with the race allowed multiple robots to sprint across the finish line.

Even before Saturday’s competition, teams practiced their vehicles in various parts of the Southwest desert, including on last year’s course. Teams also improved their vehicles’ artificial intelligence and sensing systems, which navigate the rough landscape without crashing.

The vehicles were tricked out with artificial intelligence capabilities, which helped them distinguish dangerous boulders from tumbleweeds and decide whether chasms were too deep to cross.

The robotic vehicles had to navigate a course designed to mimic driving conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The course consisted of winding dirt trails and dry lake beds filled with overhanging brush. Parts of the route forced the robots to zip through three tunnels designed to knock out their GPS signals.

Only the five robots that completed the course managed to maneuver a steep 1.3-mile mountain pass known as “Beer Bottle Pass” five miles from the finish line. The mountain ridge — similar to mountain canyons found in Afghanistan — was only 10 feet wide and had a 200-feet drop-off.

The race is part of the military’s effort to fulfill a congressional mandate to cut casualties by having a third of the military’s ground vehicles unmanned in 20 years.

A small fleet of autonomous ground vehicles currently operate in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the machines must be remotely controlled by a soldier who usually rides in the same convoy.