When last we visited with the men and women, the boys and girls, the Red Teams and Blue Teams and Road Warriors of the DARPA Grand Challenge off-road robotics race, back in March, we signed off on a note of authentic ambivalence. The teams themselves were all over the map, from rehearsing victory speeches to praying they would pass the qualifying round and be allowed on to what was anticipated to be a 210-mile course from outside Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert to somewhere just west of Vegas. The race's organizers, for their part, couldn't quite muster a consensus on how to handicap the event. Race manager and resident sunny optimist Col. Jose Negron unblinkingly predicted that a team would cross the finish line in under 10 hours to claim DARPA's million-dollar prize in the race's inaugural run-yet course designer Sal Fish couldn't bring himself to share this official vision. "Its still hard to get it in my brain," Fish said, "that this is all going to happen with robots."Chalk one up for Mr. Fish.
Here, to spare you the suspense, is how things looked once the dust had cleared on race day, March 13: Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team, the presumptive race favorite-in the minds of many race insiders, the only team with a realistic shot at the million-dollar prize-had ended the race at mile 7.4, its Humvee's belly straddling the outer edge of a drop-off, front wheels spinning freely, on fire. SciAutonics II dropped out of the running at mile 6.7, its Israeli dune buggy stuck in an embankment. Digital Auto Drive quit at mile 6.0, its Toyota Tundra stymied by a football-size rock. The Golem Group stopped at mile 5.2, its pickup stuck on a hill with insufficient throttle to move forward. Team Caltech, another race favorite, dropped out at mile 1.3, its Chevy Tahoe SUV having careened off course and through a fence. Team TerraMax, a heavyweight collaboration between Ohio State University and the Oshkosh Trucking Corporation, was out at mile 1.2, stopped of its own accord, a 32,000-pound six-wheel military truck flummoxed by some bushes. These, it should be noted, were the Grand Challenge success stories. The rest of the field went haywire at or just beyond the starting chute in full view of the press who packed the grandstands erected for the event.
The two teams that had become media darlings and unofficial DARPA pets had suffered particularly inglorious flameouts. At the last minute, Anthony Levandowski, the UC Berkeley grad student-cum-visionary behind the Blue Team's autonomous motorcycle, scratched from the race proper, his navigation systems nowhere near race-ready. But, as he proved on an earlier qualifying attempt, Levandowski had successfully realized an ingenious software system that could keep the bike moving forward (or in circles) through constant steering and countersteering corrections. At the Grand Challenge, DARPA agreed to let him stage a remote-control demonstration for the by now autonomous-bike-crazed media. Alas, when the checkered flag went down, so did the bike, without a whimper. The first attempt of the high school team from Los Angeles, the Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors, aborted when their vehicle, a modified Honda Acura MDX, lurched right immediately after start-up and headed for the grandstands until DARPA hit the disabling "E-Stop" button. Race organizers granted the team the luxury of a second try and time to make some quick software fixes, and for Take 2, the Acura came roaring out of the gate hard left and knocked over a two-and-half-foot-high concrete guard before DARPA could hit the E-Stop, a don't-try-this-at-home moment of autonomous mayhem that proved popular with the evening TV news broadcasts.