Flash back to October 8, 2005: Stanford Racing Team's “Stanley”—a tweaked VW Touareg with robotic innards—kicks up a cloud of triumphal dust as it crosses the finish line at the DARPA Grand Challenge in Primm, Nevada. Stanley was the first of four unmanned vehicles that day to complete a 132-mile desert course replete with rocks, treacherous inclines, and cliff-side hairpin turns. Though Stanford's team grabbed the $2 million top prize, the event represented a collective victory for autonomous vehicle developers. After Stanley and its cohorts proved their mettle, self-driving cars started to seem less like a Jetsons-inspired pipe dream and more like the automotive wave of the future.
DARPA is upping the real-world ante with this year's Urban Challenge, held in Victorville, Calif. The field of 11 robotic finalists won't just need to steer, turn, and brake successfully to navigate the 60-mile course; they'll also have to obey traffic laws and signals, negotiate merges on lane-marked roads, and carry out simulated battlefield supply missions. The race organizers' immediate objectives are military—Congress has pledged to replace one-third of its operational ground fleet with autonomous vehicles by 2015—but if this year's entrants can pull off bravura performances, the civilian implications will be enormous. Robotics engineers envision a new generation of computerized cars that will redefine the term “autopilot,” ferrying passengers unassisted from point A to point B, maintaining ideal speed at all times, and braking for dogs and bikes faster than any human driver ever could.
The first vehicle to complete the course will win $2 million, and second- and third-place finishers will bank $1 million and $500,000 respectively. Flag fall will take place at 8 am Pacific time tomorrow—stay tuned for up-to-the-minute live coverage of the race.—Elizabeth Svoboda