Leslie J. Allen
November 12, 2007 - 12:01 am ET
VICTORVILLE, Calif. — The first thing that strikes me about this place is the color — or the lack of it. It's all khaki. Everywhere you look, abandoned khaki buildings are scattered in an endless expanse of khaki dirt covered with khaki rocks. Even the air is filled with khaki dust.
But this is the Mojave Desert, after all, and I'm on an old military base. If the government knows nothing else, it knows khaki.
It also knows how to look toward the future, and this is why we're here. In a few moments history will be made as 11 robotic vehicles compete for a $2 million prize. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is sponsoring this race, called the DARPA Urban Challenge. Its hope is that the competition will speed development of vehicles that are completely autonomous, able to drive themselves with no human intervention and no remote controls.
With U.S. military convoys under attack in Iraq, the Pentagon's interest in driverless vehicles is hardly academic.
On your mark ...
The vehicles are lined up in their chutes, and the announcer is running through the list of teams and sponsors. These robots are hardly race cars, but like their high-speed counterparts, they are covered with decals naming their corporate backers.
The day starts off chilly, but in no time the sun is beating down mercilessly on the bleachers.
To avoid any appearance of bias, I left the hotel without the GM-logo baseball cap — with the big visor — the automaker provided me the night before. Now I'm baking in the sun and wishing for that little piece of swag. But it's too late. The hotel is nearly an hour's drive away and I'm stuck here.
The sun is the last thing on the mind of Varsha Sadekar, General Motors' program manager for the Urban Challenge. She says she's confident but still a little nervous about the prospects for the GM-backed Tartan Racing Team and its robotic Chevy Tahoe, which the team has dubbed Boss.
The next day, she would learn her confidence was not misplaced.
After placing first in the semifinals, Boss has the pole position for this race. And it has a big fan club. The stands are filled with members of the Tartan Racing Team, most of them decked out in red. They represent partners GM, Continental AG, Caterpillar and Tartan's home, Carnegie Mellon University.
Boss, Junior, Odin
A friendly rivalry is brewing between Tartan and the folks nearby in the blue shirts. They support Junior, the Stanford Racing Team's robotic Volkswagen Passat wagon. Stanford University won the 2004 DARPA autonomous driving event, so it's the team to beat.
There also is the sentimental favorite, Odin, a Ford Escape Hybrid modified by the Victor Tango team based at Virginia Tech. It carries the number 32 to honor those slain in the campus massacre. And the darling among the fans is TerraMax, a behemoth built by Team Oshkosh Truck. At more than 10 feet tall, it towers over Little Ben, a Toyota Prius from the University of Pennsylvania team.
In the bleachers, Sadekar and other members of the Tartan team are too anxious to sit. They step up on the unsteady plank seats to get a good look. Eighteen months of labor had come to this moment.
The Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard — riding khaki horses — stands by as the National Anthem is sung. Next up, Boss is to drive itself to the starting point.
The anthem ends. Then ... nothing.
As their names are called, one by one, the other vehicles take off before Boss. After downloading their route instructions, they leave their chutes, work their way to the starting line, signal a right turn and disappear from view. They know where they are going, but they must find a way to get there.
Into the stands
The sight of steering wheels turning themselves is slightly disconcerting to me, especially when a couple of the vehicles look as if they are going to drive right into the stands.
The vehicles merge into traffic, follow signs, yield and park using cameras, sensors, lasers, radar, global positioning satellites and other technologies. As they travel through the simulated city streets, they interact not only with the other robots but with the chase vehicles assigned to each robot and with a fleet of human-driven Ford Tauruses that DARPA has thrown in to increase traffic.
I'm puzzled. So are the Tartan team members. Why is Boss just sitting there?
At the chute, pit crew members look for answers. The GPS system has failed. They swap it with a GPS unit on the backup Boss vehicle. It fails, too.
Then they discover the problem: interference from Jumbotron broadcast equipment nearby. The screen is set up to show aerial views of the race in a giant tent nearby.
Maybe it's because they all have nicknames, but I feel like the vehicles have personalities. No two are alike. Once Boss's GPS system kicks back in, the space-age Tahoe, decked out in everything from a spinning laser scanner on its hood to something that looks like an old Mr. Coffee, takes off, its sirens blaring.
The vehicle drives itself onto the course like a person determined to make up for lost time. Its driving is aggressive, yet precise. It carries out missions at an average 14 mph without a major error.
I worry it will lose points for starting late. Some fret because it pulled forward out of a parking space rather than backing out. Others are more confident: The area all around the vehicle is full of empty parking spaces, and Boss left the lot the way a human driver would, by pulling forward.
Despite the initial half-hour delay, Boss crosses the finish line just a minute or so behind rival Junior.
Only six of the 11 finalists have made it to the end of the race. The enormous TerraMax is among those that don't make it. It is pulled after nearly slamming into a building. Another vehicle gets stuck on the off-road portion of the course. Some survive their mishaps: The MIT and Cornell teams both finish, despite crashing into each other in a passing maneuver.
With the race over, Tartan team members hug and congratulate each other, but they are cautious not to get too excited. They know they did well, but DARPA's scoring system is a mystery. No one will know the winner until the next day.
Larry Burns, GM's r&d vice president, gives an impromptu pep talk in the pit area. Whether the vehicle wins the race or not, he says, you will look back on this day 10 to 20 years from now and realize the auto industry changed today.
Make that the next day. Applause thunders as the results are announced. Boss, this time with a human chauffeur, drives to the finish line one last time, for photos with his team.