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.

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.

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