THE MOST VALUABLE AND COMPLEX component in a modern vehicle typically is also the most unreliable part of the system. Driving accidents usually have both a human cause and a human victim. To certain engineers—especially those who build robots—that is a problem with an obvious solution: replace the easily distracted, readily fatigued driver with an ever attentive, never tiring machine.
The U.S. military, which has been losing soldiers to roadside bombs in Iraq for several years, is particularly keen on this idea. But by 2002 more than a decade of military-funded research on autonomous ground vehicles had produced only a few slow and clumsy prototypes.
So that year the Pentagon authorized its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to take an unconventional approach: a public competition with a $1-million prize. The next February DARPA director Anthony J. Tether announced that the Grand Challenge—the first long-distance race for driverless vehicles—would be held in the Mojave Desert in March 2004. When no robot completed that course, DARPA doubled the prize and scheduled a second running, through a different part of the desert, for October 2005.
The point of the Grand Challenge was not to produce a robot that the military could move directly to mass production, Tether says. The aim was to energize the engineering community to tackle the many problems that must be solved before vehicles can pilot themselves safely at high speed over unfamiliar terrain. “Our job is to take the technical excuse off the table, so people can no longer say it can’t be done,” Tether explained at the qualifying event held 10 days before the October 8 race.
Clearly, it can be done—and done in more than one way. This time five autonomous vehicles crossed the finish line, four of them navigating the 132-mile course in well under the 10 hours required to be eligible for the cash prize.
More important than the race itself are the innovations that have been developed by Grand Challenge teams, including some whose robots failed to finish or even to qualify for the race. These inventions provide building blocks for a qualitatively new class of ground vehicles that can carry goods, plow fields, dig mines, haul dirt, explore distant worlds—and, yes, fight battles—with little or no human intervention.
“The potential here is enormous,” insists Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and also head of its robot racing team. “Autonomous vehicles will be as important as the Internet.”