DARPA Urban Challenge: Countdown to Launch

Dispatch from the field

Race-day countdown has begun—it's 7:15 AM Pacific time, and the first robot vehicles will rumble from the starting blocks in less than an hour. Despite the morning chill in Victorville, the overall mood is exuberant. Inside the big white breakfast tent, team members in matching jackets bolt down cup after cup of coffee and hunch together over folding tables to discuss strategy. Out at the track, the vehicles slated to launch first are already pulling into their starting positions.

The shared feeling among team members and organizers that nothing about today's event will be predictable helps fuel the excitement. "If anyone tells you they know what's going to happen, they're lying," says Norman Whitaker, the Urban Challenge program manager. "Sometimes the robots will decide to go off on some road that we didn't even know they knew about. This is also the first chance the robots have had to interact with one another, and we're cautiously optimistic that they'll behave well together." He warns that the race could have an anticlimactic ending, since the first vehicle to complete the course will not necessarily be the winner. Finishing time will be taken into account, but points will be deducted for infractions like running stop signs and veering off the prescribed route.

The Southern California Logistics Airport—the setting for today's race—is Area 51-spooky, especially at this early hour. The former air force base was decommissioned in 1992, and abandoned barracks and half-finished concrete structures litter the campus. Seems ironic that a ghost town like this is playing host to such a forward-looking event.—Elizabeth Svoboda