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Robot Hummers on road to desert race

Unmanned vehicles head to the Nevada desert for a six-week test run before competing in the DARPA Grand Challenge.

Two unmanned Hummers called Sandstorm and Highlander, developed at Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University, are on their way to Carson City, Nev., for a six-week test run in the desert before the semifinals of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge. A U.S. military-sponsored desert race that tests the driving endurance of robots, the Grand Challenge semifinals will be held at the California Speedway at Fontana starting Sept. 26.

Sandstorm and Highlander are equipped with computers, external sensors (for "sight") and electronics for autonomous control. And while the artificially-intelligent vehicles have mastered basic skills like passing other cars or avoiding obstacles, they have further to go. On a recent test run, Highlander failed to switch to a reserve tank and ran out of gas. "There are a million lines of good software behind the wheel, (but) the robots still lack common sense," CMU robotics professor Red Whittaker said.