An Oral History of the Darpa Challenge, the Grueling Robot Race That Launched the Self-Driving Car

WIRED | 8/3/2017 | Alex Davies
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On March 13, 2004, a gaggle of engineers and a few thousand spectators congregated outside a California dive bar to watch 15 self-driving cars speed across the Mojave Desert in the first-ever Darpa Grand Challenge. (That’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s skunkworks arm.) Before the start of the race, which marked the first big push toward a fully autonomous vehicle, the grounds surrounding the bar teemed with sweaty, stressed, sleep-deprived geeks, desperately tinkering with their motley assortment of driver­less Frankencars: SUVs, dune buggies, monster trucks, even a motorcycle. After the race, they left behind a vehicular graveyard littered with smashed fence posts, messes of barbed wire, and at least one empty fire extinguisher.

What happened in between—the rush out of the starter gate, the switchbacks across the rocky terrain, the many, many crashes—didn’t just hint at the possibilities and potential limitations of autonomous vehicles that auto and tech companies are facing and that consumers will experience in the coming years as driverless vehicles swarm the roads. It created the self-­driving community as we know it today, the men and women in too-big polo shirts who would go on to dominate an automotive revolution.

Soldiers - Harm - Combat - Zones - US

In 2001, eager to keep soldiers away from harm in combat zones, the US Congress demanded that a third of the military’s ground combat vehicles be uncrewed by 2015. But defense industry stalwarts weren’t innovating quickly enough on the sensor and computing technologies that would enable autonomous driving. So in February 2003, Tony Tether, the director of Darpa, announced a 142-mile race for self-driving cars , open to anyone, with a $1 million prize for whoever finished its course the fastest. Tether held a kickoff event at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles for prospective racers.

TONY TETHER (Darpa): I thought, “****, maybe we’ll get five...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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