DARPA Grand Challenge 2005: a race-day diary

DARPA Grand Challenge 2005: a race-day diary

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
7 min read
5 a.m., Saturday, October 8 Charlie, CNET's intrepid camera guy, and I rolled into the parking lot at Buffalo Bill's Resort and Casino in Primm, Nevada, at 4:58 a.m. this morning, and we're already behind the curve. There are about three parking spots left, and even though it feels like the dead of night, the place is already hopping. We're checking in for a 5 a.m. media briefing, but the teams had to be here at 4:30 a.m. to receive a CD containing the course information for today's race. We find out at the briefing that the race will consist of a rather paltry 131.6 miles (we'd expected between 140 and 170). It'll include various hairpin turns and some speed-testing straightaways right alongside Interstate 15 between Primm and Las Vegas, and it will end in a series of mountain switchbacks called Beer Bottle Pass. This is obviously a military operation--that is, it's impressively organized. There's a giant tent for spectators that will feature multiple plasma screens showing satellite feeds and broadcasting regular position updates. There's also a tent where spectators can line up to view 3D satellite images of the race in progress. And, of course, there are concessions and a T-shirt stand.

Race day at DARPA 2005
Dawn breaks over the desert in Primm, Nevada

6:30 a.m. Daylight is breaking over the desert, and the vehicles are getting into place. DARPA director Tony Tether has reminded us several times by now that we are about to witness history in the making, and as the wind begins to pick up, we're just waiting for that history to start. At this point, H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm have pulled into position, and we're waiting for a go signal, followed by an audible signal from the vehicle, and then they'll lurch into action.

H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm wait for the race to start
H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm wait for the race to start

6:40 a.m. H1ghlander gets the go sign, and he's off! The Carnegie Mellon Humvee jets out of the starting chute, straight and true, and seconds later he's booking across the desert, headed for the first U-turn of the race in a dry lake about a mile and a half away. Trailed by a chase vehicle, H1ghlander kicks up a cloud of dust and wild cheering. Five minutes later, Stanley launches in slightly frightening fashion--the vehicle comes slowly out of the chute, makes an alarming turn right toward the concrete balustrade between the starting corral and the grandstands, then rights itself and heads off into the distance. Five minutes later, Sandstorm launches, and five minutes after than, it's Spirit, the Jeep Grand Cherokee from the Axion team.

7 a.m. Just about 15 minutes into the race, and as the bots are still launching, an announcer comes on to tell us that last year's record has already been surpassed--H1ghlander has crossed the 8-mile mark. Two women come by handing out free cans of Red Bull (Stanley's sponsor), which Charlie and I gratefully accept.

The bots continue to launch in intervals for about two and a half hours, and TerraMax, the big yellow behemoth from Oshkosh, lumbers out in second place at a little after 9 a.m. By that point, two vehicles have already passed Spirit; H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm are in a tight little knot headed through the course; and the wind has picked up even more. H1ghlander crosses the 28-mile mark, going four times as far as its compatriot did 18 months ago. The DARPA announcer tells us that, by Congressional mandate, 30 percent of all military vehicles must be autonomous by 2015.

11 a.m. Members of the media pile into a bus that takes us about 12 miles along the Interstate to a spot that's 68 miles into the course--almost 10 times as far as the best-performing bot in the first challenge. We have just missed H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm, but the DARPA security guys--big, serious military types in DARPA Grand Challenge windbreakers and hats--tell us that H1ghlander and Stanley cruised straight through as though a person were behind the wheel. Sandstorm, hampered by, um, a sandstorm, was a little shakier. The wind has really picked up, and mini sand tornadoes are everywhere. We wait for the next vehicles to pass with our shirts pulled over our mouths, and I can feel sand working its way into my hair follicles. The next bot to arrive is Team Ensco's desert racer, Dexter. This dune buggy-style vehicle is really cruising--a couple of bots have dropped out at this point, and Dexter has made a huge surge. In fact, he's looking like the early favorite, since this is a time trial. Around 11:30, Axion's Spirit comes by at a snail's pace, but she's still kicking. As we ride back in the bus, we actually see H1ghlander and Stanley streaking across the desert, followed by the military helicopters that are tracking their every move. Spectators line parts of the freeway, and it's utterly surreal to see these driverless vehicles cruising along with trucks behind them. We joke about all the 911 calls that are probably coming in this afternoon.

On our bus is a representative from TerraMax, who says its monster bot is about 30 miles out. She looks tense as she reports that TerraMax is moving fine, just very slowly.

12:30 p.m. "Hold onto your hats, folks," says the announcer. "Stanley has just passed H1ghlander."

There are notes in the media tent about the vehicles that have dropped out, and it's starting to look like a mini graveyard. The MITRE team made it only one mile, while MonstorMoto managed just seven. Team DAD, whose Toyota Tundra featured a truly innovative spinning laser sensor, saw that sensor fail at 26 miles, and one grim notation says, "Virginia Tech, Rocky--36 miles. No longer moving. *Cliff.*" Sadly, the underdog Axion team's Spirit became mired in sand shortly after we saw her pass the halfway point, and the scrappy Dexter suffered a severely punctured tire at 81 miles.

1:30 p.m. The lead vehicles are approaching Beer Bottle Pass, and Stanley is still the lead. We see him start on the switchbacks in a live feed broadcast in the media tent, and a huge cheer goes up. At this point, Stanley is only five miles from the finish line, and he's moving smoothly through the hairpin turns, with a cliff wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. The Stanford team files into the grandstand and does the Stanford wave, but Sebastian Thrun tells them the next one can happen only when Stanley crosses the finish line. Suddenly, helicopters appear in the distance and the entire Stanford team pours down to the fence in front of the finish line.

1:45 p.m. Off in the distance at the foot of the hills, Stanley and the chase vehicle come into view, closely flanked by two helicopters. The Stanford team and many spectators erupt into cheering. Stanley makes its way toward the finish, where DARPA Director Tony Tether is waiting. He flags down the vehicles and hits the E-stop, to officially declare Stanley the first vehicle to cross the finish line. As the bot makes its way through the Finish gates, the Stanford team hoists Sebastian Thrun and software lead Michael Montemerlo into the air, after dousing them with giant cans of Red Bull. Asked for comment, Sebastian shouts, "We had a good day."

Stanford's Stanley bot crosses the finish line
Stanley crosses the finish line--but does he win?

The three lead vehicles finish within about 30 minutes of each other. It's clear to most everyone that Stanley finished faster than the Carnegie Mellon bots--certainly H1ghlander, which was passed. But DARPA refuses to give out exact finishing times, saying it wants to focus on the technological achievements we've just seen in the race, er, challenge. Besides, at this point, three vehicles--CajunBot, Desert Rat, and TerraMax--are still out on the course. By late afternoon, the utterly overlooked Gray Team's bot, TerraMax, and, I think, CajunBot were still out on the course. DARPA would not declare a winner, saying it was still possible for the others to complete the course with a winning time, and that they would continue operations overnight. GrayBot, a modified Ford Escape Hybrid, did indeed complete the course Saturday, in a competitive 7 hours and 30 minutes. TerraMax had to be paused overnight, and true to its size and slowness, took 12 hours, 51 minutes of total time to reach the finish line. Don't feel bad, though. I think Oshkosh already has its contract in hand.

Finally, on Sunday, Stanley is declared the winner and awarded the $2 million prize. And a new era of car and truck development begins. Are we ready?