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Who's Driving?
Things still go better with humans at the helm

Thirteen vehicles lined up last March to race across the Mojave Desert, seeking a cool million in prize money. To win, they had to finish the 142-mile (223-kilometer) course in less than 10 hours. Teams and spectators knew there might be no winner at all, because these vehicles were missing a key element: drivers.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, sponsored the race as part of a push to develop robotic vehicles for future battlefields. But the Grand Challenge, as it was called, proved a spectacular demonstration of just how difficult it is to get a car or buggy to speed across an unfamiliar landscape without human guidance. One had its brake lock up in the starting area. Another began by slamming into a wall. Another got spooked by bushes near the road after 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers).
One flipped. One took off in entirely the wrong direction and had to be disabled by remote control. One went a little more than a mile and plunged through a fence; another managed to go for six miles (nine kilometers) but got stuck on a rock. The "winner," if you will, reached 7.4 miles (11.9 kilometers) before it ran into a berm, and the front wheels caught on fire.
"You get a lot of respect for natural biological systems," says Reinhold Behringer, who helped design two of the car-size vehicles for a company called SciAutonics. "Even ants do all these functions effortlessly. It's very hard for us to imitate that and put it into our machines."
The autonomous vehicles, despite being loaded with lasers, radar, stereoscopic cameras, gyroscopes, advanced computers, and GPS guidance, had trouble figuring out fast enough the significance of obstacles that a two-year-old human recognizes immediately. Sure, that toddler may not think to wipe spaghetti sauce off her face, but she already knows that when there's a cookie in the kitchen she has to climb up to the cabinet, and that when she gets to the cookie it will taste good. She is more advanced, even in diapers, than any machine humans have devised.
For the fantastically successful Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, fast movement and quick thinking were never priorities. Top rover speed, pedal to the metal: a tenth of a mile an hour. The Grand Challenge vehicles, on the other hand, were supposed to go 15 miles (24 kilometers) an hour. Unlike the Grand Challenge vehicles, the Mars rovers were designed to wait for human input in uncertain situations. "The rover has the intelligence of a bug," says mission manager Mark Adler. "It can go around an obstacle. It can detect hazards. But we've got a long way to go from a bug to what a two-year-old can do." (Sometimes, says Adler, technicians would watch a rover come to a standstill for no apparent reason.)

There'll be more autonomous vehicle races in the desert. Someday a buggy will speed along for 142 miles (223 kilometers) on its own. Meanwhile, we'll keep humans—at least remotely—in the driver's seat.

—Joel Achenbach
Washington Post staff writer

Web Links

More Articles by Joel Achenbach
Read some of writer Joel Achenbach's columns for the Washington Post.

Grand Challenge 2004 Image Gallery
Travel to the California Speedway to view the robotic vehicles that participated in the qualifying round.
Interview with SciAutonics President
Reinhold Behringer talks about the one in a thousand chance that the two vehicles his company entered in the race had of mastering the course.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Planetary Robotics Laboratory
Watch video clips of rovers—including an inflatable one.
Mars Exploration Rover Mission
Check here for the latest news from Spirit and Opportunity.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) rd/projects/2004/2004_current_projects.html
Follow links detailing MBARI's research projects using autonomous vehicles (AUVs), including seafloor mapping.
NASA's Robotics Education Project
Start here to learn more about Botball, a high-energy, high-tech robotics competition for students.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
Learn more about an AUV called ABE, an autonomous benthic explorer.

Free World Map

Biever, Celeste. "The Wacky Races." New Scientist (March 13, 2004), 26-9.
Bridges, Andrew. "All Robots Break Down in Pentagon Race." Associated Press Online, March 15, 2004.
Briscoe, Daren. "Contest Ends in Fall of the Machines." Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2004.
Gibbs, W. Wayt. "A New Race of Robots." Scientific American (March 2004), 58-67.
McGray, Douglas. "The Great Robot Race." Wired (March 2004). Available online at
"None Shall Have Prizes." Economist (March 20, 2004).


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