U.S. Government Sponsors Automated Automotive Race

As a young adult straddling the line between Generations X and Y, it feels strange to read how scholars and authors from years past envisioned the effect of technology on our society in the first decade of the millennium. Personally, I’m still waiting for the transforming robots, floating cities, and an inexpensive cure for just about every serious disease known to man. However, while technology may not move as quickly as some of us would like, a unique auto race sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense reminds us that self-driving vehicles may replace their human-driven counterparts sooner than we think.

Since 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored a driverless road race called the Urban Challenge. Teams from around the world compete to design an “autonomous ground vehicle” that can successfully navigate a simulated urban environment under specific rules without the help of a driver or a remote control. These cars depend on sensors and other built-in mechanisms to maneuver.

This year’s Urban Challenge took place in Victorville, CA on November 3 and featured 11 finalists who had to conquer 60 miles of potholes, downed power lines, rocks, and other obstacles in under 6 hours while following California traffic rules. A team from Carnegie Mellon University finished first and claimed the top prize of $2 million. Their entry averaged 14 mph during their championship run, finishing nearly 20 minutes ahead of the second place team from Stanford. An entry from Virginia Tech finished third.

In the big picture, the Urban Challenge shows that autonomous ground vehicles can save lives in times of war by taking soldiers off the battlefield. This technology could also pay huge dividends when it comes to rescue missions and damage control in the event of natural disasters. Regardless, money talks and the more DARPA offers for events like the Urban Challenge, the more likely we’ll see advanced versions of these groundbreaking new vehicles going into the line of fire in the near future.

– posted by Taeho Lim