Driverless robots reach milestone in DARPA race

Stanford University makes robotics history by finishing first in a driverless car race never before conquered.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
PRIMM VALLEY, Nev.--Stanford University's Racing Team has accomplished a historic feat of robotics, finishing first in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a 131.6-mile driverless car race that no artificially intelligent machine has ever conquered before.

"We had a great day," said Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford's artificial intelligence lab and head of the racing team. Stanford's "Stanley," a modified Volkswagen Touareg with sensors and radar mountings, crossed the finish line within eight hours and 14 minutes, beating the 10-hour requirement, according to times posted on the DARPA race Web site.

Although an official winner will not be announced until all robots either finish or burn out, the DARPA Grand Challenge "has been conquered," a spokesman for the department said.

"These are world records," he added.

DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the research and development unit of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The first race in 2004 had no winner for its $1 million purse: Carnegie Mellon University's Sandstorm went only about 7 miles in the 144 mile race. For this year's race, which carries a $2 million prize, the "checkbook is out," DARPA's director Tony Tether said once Stanley crossed the finish line.

Stanford's Thrun, a German-born robotics professor, cheered wildly after his team members soaked him in mystery liquid from giant cans of Red Bull. It was a lot of liquid: Stanford had more than 100 team members in blue shirts at the race, including sponsors from Intel, Mohr Davidow and Volkswagen, whose tagline for the challenge was "Drivers not required."

Roughly 10 minutes after Stanley crossed the finish line, Carnegie Mellon University's H1ghlander came through second. A bright red Hummer with a giant-looking eyeball on top, which encases laser sensors, H1ghlander completed the course in eight hours and 19 minutes.

CMU's Sandstorm followed minutes later, finishing in roughly eight hours 12 minutes, according to the site. CMU had predicted the odds of finishing the course for both H1ghlander and Sandstorm were about 29 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

The driving times for all the vehicles are not final because they had been paused several times during the race for various reasons. Stanley, for example, was paused at least once for running up too close behind H1ghlander, which it eventually passed.

Stanford team members said they believe they ran the course in about seven hours.

Onlookers were wide-eyed watching the vehicles work their way through the extremely tricky course even though much of the race they could see only by wide-screen TVs in the spectator tent or by a real-time mapping tent.

For example, people in the spectator tent watched on with awe when Stanley drove over and down Beer Bottle Pass, which has 1,000-foot drops and hairpin turns. The packed crowd cheered when the car made it around the first switchback and then began chanting "Stanley, Stanley" as it went drove down. A father, whose son was from the Princeton University team, even showed his allegiance. "I graduated from Stanford," he said.

Princeton's car, "Prospect 11," pooped out after only nine miles because its control system got confused and out of sync with the vehicle's mapping system.

Terra Max, one of the last vehicles to start and one of the most widely watched, may have trouble crossing Beer Bottle pass given its size. Terra Max is a giant 16-ton vehicle from Osh Kosh with a Caterpillar engine. It is one of only three teams still in the race.

The Gray Team from Louisiana and Insight Racing from North Carolina are still in the race. A DARPA spokesman said that if it appears the cars will still be driving at sundown, the group will stop the robots and let them finish the course Sunday. However, if it appears that the cars can't finish the course within 10 hours, they will call the race.

A final ceremony is scheduled for 6 p.m. PDT Saturday.