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Building the Best Driverless Robot Car

4 minute read
Lev Grossman

On a recent Saturday afternoon, on a desert road outside Los Angeles, a Land Rover ran into a Chevy Tahoe. Happily, nobody was hurt. That’s because no one was in either car.

The collision–which was more of a love tap, since the Rover was going less than 10 m.p.h. (16 km/h)–took place in a very unusual road race on a dismantled Air Force base in Victorville, Calif. A few years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s blue-sky high-tech research wing that everyone calls DARPA, decided it was interested in developing robotic vehicles that could drive themselves: no remote control, no human intervention, only artificial intelligence behind the wheel. But instead of hiring a bunch of fancy nerds and sticking them in an undisclosed location until they came up with a robo-car, DARPA held an open-invitation unmanned-car rally. Come on down, bring the kids, and may the fastest bot win. Grand prize: $2 million.

DARPA’s first driverless rally, in 2004, was an off-road race. This year the agency focused on urban features. The 60-mile (100 km) course included intersections and buildings, and contestants had to park and merge with traffic. On the outside, most of the vehicles looked quite similar: conventional sedans and SUVs plastered with corporate-sponsor logos and encrusted with sensors, their backseats loaded with rack-mounted PCs. The one big exception was a monster truck so enormous that the course had to be widened to accommodate it.

The atmosphere was very much that of a bullfight: once the contestants were released onto the course, nobody was quite sure what they would do. (For the record, every vehicle comes with a remote-control kill switch, which sits in the sweaty palms of a DARPA employee in a chase car.) The autobots moved slowly and haltingly, their computer brains thrashing furiously to interpret incoming visual data. But like polite student drivers, they stopped at every stop sign and signaled before every turn.

A lot of new technology was on display in Victorville, but the DARPA challenge also demonstrated a new way of developing technology. You could call it the open-sourcing of R&D, or maybe the American Idol-izing of it. Amateurs are free to mix it up with big corporations and research universities. MIT was among the 35 competitors, but so was Team Gray Racing, a Louisiana troupe started by insurance-company executives after they heard about the first DARPA road race. “They said, ‘We’ve got some good tech people–why don’t we do this?'” says a Team Gray member. And DARPA isn’t the only government outfit working this way. NASA lists seven competitions on its website, including the Astronaut Glove Challenge. Get sewing!

Although some of the interest in robotic vehicles comes from car companies eager to reduce traffic fatalities, it’s the military that’s really driving this research. The appeal is obvious: How many lives will be saved once the convoys in Iraq are unmanned? It’s not as unrealistic as it sounds. Remote-controlled robot soldiers toting M249 rifles are already in the field there.

The winner of the DARPA Urban Challenge, Carnegie Mellon’s Chevy Tahoe, a.k.a. “Boss,” finished 20 minutes ahead of the runner-up, a Passat from Stanford. The Chevy’s average speed of 14 m.p.h. (23 km/h) wasn’t exactly blazing but was a big improvement over the 2004 race, in which no robots finished at all. The atmosphere was celebratory, though tempered by the uncanniness of watching driverless cars à la Stephen King’s Christine, a 1958 Plymouth with a taste for blood. “It’s pretty creepy when your vehicle starts beeping and it peels out,” says a grad student on the MIT team, which placed fourth. “You’re sitting here thinking, Oh my God, what’s happening? But when it comes back to you at the end? That’s really awesome.”

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