PRIMM VALLEY, Nev.--Here in a dry lakebed of the Nevada desert, it may be impossible to spot a "Jackalope"--the mythical cross-breed between a rabbit and antelope--but you can see something else hard to fathom: the driverless car.
At about mile 68 of the DARPA Grand Challenge, the halfway point in the military-sponsored robot race, at least five vehicles have driven by autonomously.
That's a historical milestone for the second annual race and for all robotic unmanned vehicles. Last year, the best-performing bot, Carnegie Mellon University's Sandstorm, drove little more than 7 miles before spinning its wheels and burning out.
"It's exciting to see this compared with last year's race," said Jim Dugan, a representative of Caterpillar, which makes mining engines and is a sponsor of two race teams, CMU and Terra Max.
"It's great for technology to advance that quickly and it shows competition is a good thing," he said.
CMU's two robots, H1ghlander and Sandstorm, are in first and third place, respectively, with Stanford Racing Team's Stanley running second at about noon PDT Saturday. The cars' position does not equate their ranking, they merely started the course at different times, at roughly 10 minute intervals beginning at 6:30 a.m. But Stanley, a modified Volkswagen Touareg has made up the 10 minutes and passed Red Team's H1ghlander, a military-styled Hummer.
Both cars have passed all course obstacles by noon, including a darkened tunnel where their GPS technology doesn't work well, bumpy hills and rocky gullies. And that's not including all the desert wind and dust clouds muddying their "sight" on this windy, but sunny day almost 40 miles outside Las Vegas.
Still, as of noon, 11 bots have gone bust.
Cornell University's "Spider" was one of the first to go out after 9 miles traversed. On Friday it was having problems with its sensors and it had to replace a generator with another one that was having hiccups, so it had been worried. The car hit a barrier when it driving over a bridge.
Team DAD's "Dad, Are we there yet?"--a Toyota Tundra truck--traveled 26 miles before its sensor stopped spinning. Caltech's "Alice," which replaced last year's "Bob" from the same team, burned out by driving up and hitting a cement wall and nearly taking out a reporter.
Team ENESCO's "Dexter," a military-sponsored team with a specialized vehicle, also went out after getting a flat tire.
Others that have failed: Princeton University's "Prospect 11," Virginia Tech's Rocky and Grand Challenge Teams, The Golem Group/UCLA, Desert Buckeyes, SciAutonics, MonsterMoto and Team Caltech.
But if the progress of Stanley and CMU is any indication, then the government will meet its goals within 10 years. Congress has mandated that 30 percent of military vehicles be unmanned by 2015.
Just before press time, a DARPA spokesman updated reporters on race details, saying that all of the lead vehicles are within the 10-hour time limit so far and they will approach Beer Bottle Pass in the next 30 minutes.
Beer Bottle Pass has a drop of 1,000 feet. "It's very windy and our drivers don't like it. Assuming they make it,it doesn't mean the first one in is the winner, because we have been pausing the vehicles for various things," a DARPA spokesman said.
But he added, Stanford is presumably in the lead.
"This is so exciting!" said one spectator after Stanford overtook CMU's Red Team H1ghlander.