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Robot car competitors: Don't call it a race!

The organizer of an upcoming "Robotic Grand Prix" in Long Beach, Calif., retracts the title of its event after the Stanford and Carnegie Mellon robotic racing teams take issue with how the event is being marketed.

In the world of robotic cars, human relations can be tricky.

Stanford's robotic car, Junior
Stanford's robot, Junior, was the first to cross the finish line in the Urban Grand Challenge last November. Stefanie Olsen/CNET

The organizer of an upcoming "Robotic Grand Prix" in Long Beach, Calif., has retracted the title of its event after representatives from the Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University robotic racing teams took issue with how the event was being marketed. On Monday, the Toyota Grand Prix issued a press release that said autonomous cars from Stanford, CMU, and Lehigh University--finishers of last year's DARPA Urban Grand Challenge--would race against each other again later this month.

Jim Michaelian, CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, said in an interview Tuesday that the group will now likely call the event a "robotic challenge" to reflect the fact that the three cars will not race. Rather they will demonstrate their technology by driving a lap on the Long Beach track on April 20. The lap will not be judged, he said.

"We're racing guys here. But 'race' was an overstatement. It really is a 'challenge'--and an opportunity to showcase this technology to a broad audience of 170,000 people," Michaelian said.

Still, the misrepresentation highlights the possibility of a future robotic race among these players. When asked whether the group would eventually host a Robotic Grand Prix (a race), Michaelian said: "This is the first step and we'll see where it goes from here."

A rematch would likely be a huge event, considering the rivalry between the top two contenders--CMU and Stanford--and the high stakes of past robotic competitions. Last year, CMU's "Boss," an autonomous Chevy Tahoe, won the $2 million Urban Grand Challenge, overtaking 2005's DARPA Grand Challenge winner, Stanford. Stanford's "Junior," a robotic Volkswagen Passat, took the $1 million second place in last year's contest, which tested how well autonomous vehicles could drive among other cars while still obeying traffic laws.

During the Urban Challenge, the cars maintained controlled speeds, but they were judged by how fast they finished the course and stuck to traffic laws. The implication of a race at the Toyota Grand Prix is that the robotic vehicles would be measured by how fast they could finish a lap around the track.

Sebastian Thrun, head of Stanford's racing team, said that any real race would be premature because the technology just isn't there yet. "We had no intention of turning this into a race. The intent is to go no faster than 30 mph and race cars go as fast as 150 mph. The technology is clearly not ready for those speeds."

During the demonstration on April 20, the robotic cars--Boss, Junior, and "Ben,"--will keep speeds of about 30 mph. Ben is a self-driving Toyota Prius from the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University.

Chris Urmson, director of technology for CMU's Tartan Racing, said his understanding of the event was that it would be a parade lap to show off the technology. And while it will not be a race, he said he hopes that there will be more opportunities for competition in the future.

"A race has a lot of implications of someone winning and losing," Urmson said. "We'd like to show off the technology, but we're not looking to compete with these people at this point."