Whittaker and his team were arguably the one group that might have been capable of writing a different ending (and, for that matter, middle) to the Grand Challenge. The Red Team had a fanaticism more typical of an underdog, enviable material resources (it had become one of corporate America's more assiduous shakedown artists), and a culture of discipline that emanated from the big man himself. The result was a battle-tested Humvee that was churning through impressive automonous test runs in the Mojave in February, when most of the other competitors had yet to plug in all of their circuit boards.
Technically speaking, Whittaker figured that Sandstorm's edge derived from its elaborate mapping system, which electronically stores information (roads, topography, notable features) about every square meter of the course. During the Grand Challenge qualifying trials held at the California Speedway in Fontana the week before the race, the Red mapping team would repair after each day at the track to a hillside trailer adjacent to the Divine Word Mission. The gospel according to Carnegie Mellon involved punching up contiguous sections of the Mojave Desert on 15 separate computers, each Red Team "editor" working away at optimizing Sandstorm's routes and speeds as the vehicle passed, in virtual computer reality, through his or her respective block of the master map. Two nights before the Barstow start, the team's technical director, Ph.D. candidate Chris Urmson, tried to dispel any excess of editorial caution. "We have a battering ram of a car," he said. "At 22 mph, Sandstorm is just a beast on a roll."
The Palos Verdes High School team had its own technical issues to contend with at the qualifying trials, knottier in their way than any computerized map. The Road Warriors, almost from their inception, had been riven by two distinct parental factions. One group, consisting of Alice Parker, a USC electrical engineering professor, and her husband Don Bebel, an engineer at Northrop Grumman, had mentored a group of technically sophisticated students-first among them Joe Bebel,
the couple's wunderkind 16-year-old son-who had worked up their own Linux-based operating system to drive the team's autonomous Acura. An opposing group of engineer parents emerged who resented what they perceived as Parker's and Bebel's proprietary attitude toward the project and who jumped at any chance to jettison the homegrown Linux system for a commercial Windows-based one that they regarded as technically superior and far more feasible for the non-nerd students-in many cases, their own kids-to work with. By the time the team arrived at the California Speedway, the Road Warriors had ruptured at the seams, with Parker and Bebel banished to the sidelines, and Joe and his high-tech peers conscripted by the regnant adult mentors to work with the prefab Windows-based system they despised.
The results on the test track were equivocal. The new adult team committed the fatal error of accidentally erasing its operating system code, which was by some accounts working very well. Late-night or all-night programming sessions at Fontana became routine (one 15-year-old student, Dan Jacobowitz, briefly wound up in the hospital for dehydration), as did a series of qualifying attempts that were embarrassing in their cumulative awfulness. Finally, Joe and the Linux warriors were brought in for one glorious autonomous run using the original Linux OS. The Doom Buggy navigated around more than half of the course, through cones, sand traps and fences, before crashing into a planted obstacle, a car parked on the track. "It was our one moment of glory," said Graham Robertson, Palos Verdes science teacher and the team´s faculty leader. "I was thrilled that the students had done it and the adult mentors celebrated along with them even though they say that that system is not the way to go." Added Joe, with characteristic diplomacy, "It was a nice moment to have one team again."
At around 3:30 a.m. on the day of the race, the 15 Grand Challenge competitors received from DARPA a CD containing the 2,000 or so GPS waypoints that described the Barstow-to-Primm course. The Red Team fed the information into the Sandstorm's mapping software; in 10 minutes' time it had mapped out the exact route it intended to follow. Projected race time: 13 hours-3 hours over the limit. From his aprs-battle station at Buffalo Bill's, Whittaker seemed almost to savor the moment. "The easy thing to do would have been to relax and show up at the parking lot in Primm at 7 p.m., in 13 hours," he said. "But we entered this challenge that was declared a year ago, and for us 10 hours was sacred." The Red Team went back to the software, tweaking up vehicle speed and slicing the margin of error. "I was clear," Whittaker said. "Let it run. Victory or death."
And so death it was. That Sandstorm expired near the top of Daggett Ridge, just a switchback away from 15 miles of clear sailing, was not, Whittaker feels, a reflection on route or racing strategy, which he regards as perfection itself. "By the time we finished," he said, "we were tuning the vehicle to mud puddles." The exact explanation for why Sandstorm carved a turn too sharply and nearly flipped over the side of an embankment awaits exhaustive analysis of the onboard data. But the team is agreed that the vehicle's sensing systems had not fully recovered from a rollover crash during an overly ambitious test run 10 days before the race. A quarter million dollars' worth of electronics was crushed in an instant. The team rose to the occasion-"that galvanizing moment that levels a team to its knees so that it rises to its own greatness," in Whittaker's Churchillian formulation. The parts were replaced, but the vehicle´s ability to reliably avoid obstacles was never quite the same. Sandstorm whacked fences and poles on that perfect route even before it entered its fatal hairpin turn.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.