At the break of dawn on March 13, 2004, 15 vehicles left a starting gate in the desert outside of Barstow, Calif., to make history in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a first-of-its-kind race to foster the development of self-driving ground vehicles. The immediate goal: autonomously navigate a 142-mile course that ran across the desert to Primm, Nev. The longer-term aim was to accelerate development of the technological foundations for autonomous vehicles that could ultimately substitute for men and women in hazardous military operations, such as supply convoys.
The Grand Challenge was designed to reach beyond the traditional defense performer base and tap into the ingenuity of the wider research community. It was DARPA’s first major attempt to use a prize-based competition to attract novel performers and ideas and encourage collaboration across diverse fields. The first team to pass a series of qualification tests and then complete the course in less than the prescribed ten-hour time limit would receive a $1 million cash prize.
The technological hurdles and rugged desert course proved to be too much for the teams’ first attempt. None finished the course—the top-scoring vehicle traveled only 7.5 miles—and the prize went unclaimed. The competition wasn’t a loss however; it offered a promising glimpse at what was possible.
“That first competition created a community of innovators, engineers, students, programmers, off-road racers, backyard mechanics, inventors and dreamers who came together to make history by trying to solve a tough technical problem,” said Lt. Col. Scott Wadle, DARPA’s liaison to the U.S. Marine Corps. “The fresh thinking they brought was the spark that has triggered major advances in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology in the years since.”
Just one day after the first challenge ended, DARPA announced it would hold a second Grand Challenge in the fall of 2005, 18 months after the first. This time, after analyzing lessons learned, five vehicles out of the 195 teams that entered successfully completed a 132-mile course in southern Nevada. Stanford University’s entry, “Stanley,” finished first with a time of 6 hours and 53 minutes and won the $2 million prize.
To further raise the bar, DARPA conducted a third competition, the Urban Challenge, in 2007 that featured driverless vehicles navigating a complex course in a staged city environment in Victorville, Calif., negotiating other moving traffic and obstacles while obeying traffic regulations. Six teams out of 11 successfully completed the course. The “Tartan Racing” team, led by Carnegie Mellon University, placed first in points awarded based on time to complete and ability to follow California driving rules and won the $2 million prize.
Although it isn’t easy to quantify the effects of these DARPA challenges on the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technology, ten years later defense and commercial applications are proliferating. The rapid evolution of the technology and rules for how to deploy it are being driven by the information technology and automotive industries, academic and research institutions, the Defense Department and its contractors, and federal and state transportation agencies. Within DoD, some of the efforts to improve upon and deploy autonomous ground vehicle technology include:
Today, three other DARPA challenges are building on the DARPA Grand Challenge prize-based competition model:
DARPA expects that, like the original Grand Challenge before them, these challenges will encourage new waves of research and development that will spur continued innovation, encourage commercial investment, and lower the cost of advanced technologies.
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