Stanford wins $2 million in robotic car race

The team's robotic car, "Stanley," drove autonomously across 131.6 miles in the Mojave Desert in six hours and 53 minutes. Photos: Robotic racers

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
PRIMM VALLEY, Nev.--In life, and apparently in artificial life, timing is everything.

On Saturday, the Stanford Racing Team's robotic car, "Stanley," drove autonomously across 131.6 miles in the Mojave Desert in six hours and 53 minutes, finishing about 11 minutes faster than Carnegie Mellon's "Sandstorm." Its average speed was 19.1 mph, versus Sandstorm's 18.6 mph.

The Stanford University team, which takes home the $2 million prize, also beat two other unmanned robotic vehicles to finish the DARPA Grand Challenge's rugged course in fewer than 10 hours, the race's allotted time.

Photos: Robotic racers All of the teams made history during the weekend, however. They were the first autonomous vehicles to travel far within a specific time frame, as well as the first to finish the 2-year-old military race.

"These vehicles haven't just achieved world records, they've made history," said DARPA Director Tony Tether.

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

DARPA had set out several years ago to foster new technologies for unmanned vehicles in the military, under mandate from Congress. The government has mandated that 30 percent of Army vehicles be unmanned by 2015 in order to save lives on the battlefield. And it approved research funds to be used for the Grand Challenge, which called on academia and private industry to build driverless cars with advanced technologies. The 2004 Challenge failed to produce a qualifier or winner: Sandstorm drove roughly 7 miles of the race before spinning its wheels.

"We have completed our mission here and are looking forward to seeing these exciting technologies take off," Tether said.

A DARPA spokesman said Saturday in a press conference that that likely means the end of the Grand Challenge.

"I don't think we will have another race like this in 2006," he said. "We wouldn't know how to top this one."

In a classic tale of protege overtaking mentor, Sebastian Thrun's team finished before that of CMU's Red Team's Sandstorm and Red Team Too's H1ghlander, which were both headed by Red Whittaker. Thrun was once an assistant professor at CMU under Whittaker, who's widely considered a leader in the field of robotics.

CMU's Sandstorm, the best-performing robot in 2004's Grand Challenge, and H1ghlander were considered favorites in the race, given Whittaker's expertise and that of the team, which was sponsored by Caterpillar, Google and Target. H1ghlander started first in Saturday's race, at 6:40 a.m. PDT, with Stanley beginning roughly 10 minutes later. (The robots' start times were staggered to avoid collisions.)

But toward the second half of the race for Stanley and H1ghlander, Stanley overtook the Hummer as first on the course. It had run up several times behind H1ghlander before, but DARPA had paused the robot until a better time to have it pass.

"That was a turning point in the race," said Thrun, referring to the point when he realized Stanley had been paused for a minute to create distance, rather than falling out of the race because of a malfunction.

"From that point on, Stanley was faster," Thrun said.

H1ghlander finished the race in seven hours and 14 minutes, at an average speed of 18.2 mph.

Perhaps the best underdog story comes from the fourth finalist in the challenge: The Gray Team's "Kat 5," which finished the race in seven hours and 30 minutes at an average speed of 17.5 mph.

The Gray Team was privately funded by Louisiana-based Gray Insurance, whose computer department, along with students from Tulane University, worked on Kat 5 during the past five to six months while two destructive hurricanes hit the state. The family behind Gray Insurance read about the race in Popular Science and wanted to contribute to national security by developing competitive technology.

The car is a modified Ford Escape hybrid with solar panels on top, which served as alternate power for the car.

"We only wanted to get 7 miles, like CMU did last year, and have fun. So we already won," said Denver Gray, the 18-year-old son of the team's leaders who worked on Kat 5.

TerraMax, a 16-ton Oshkosh Truck, finished the course, but not within the allotted 10 hours. DARPA had to stop the robot on Saturday evening because of nightfall, after the vehicle had been paused for a lengthy time, and then had it resume the course on Sunday morning.

"I thought it would be a race about qualifying, not time," Thrun said. "It's a victory for all of us."

There was an impressive roster of attendees and team members at the race. Google co-founder Larry Page was there, accompanying Andy Rubin, founder of Android, which was recently bought by the search giant. Executives from Boeing, Intel, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Volkswagen and others were also in attendance.