In the science fiction future of the film Minority Report, Stephen Spielberg displayed his vision of driverless automobiles: a thousand gleaming pods of metal and glass flowing in perfectly coordinated highway traffic.
Chuck Jacobus offers a slightly less glamorous vision of that robotic vehicle of tomorrow: his wife’s 11-year- old minivan.
Jacobus’s Chrysler Town and Country has seen nearly 100,000 miles and hardly looks futuristic. But his development team at Michigan-based military contractor Cybernet has great ambitions for their soccer-mom mobile. Over the past months, they’ve outfitted the van with $45,000 in equipment, including three laser sensors, a GPS system, two embedded servers and a laptop. The result is “Cybervan,” a vehicle that can pilot itself on city streets without a driver or even remote piloting.
Now Cybervan is one of 36 brave robots being put to the test in the Kentucky Derby of driverless racing: the semifinals of the Urban Challenge, the world’s first urban race of completely autonomous cars. When the final round of the Urban Challenge begins Saturday morning, that field will have been whittled down to just 20 or so robots by the event’s sponsor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Cybernet’s robot isn’t likely to dominate the race, which will take place in a reconstructed city on a military base in Victorville, Calif. The top prize of $2 million has drawn heavyweight robotics teams from universities that include Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with heavily funded, state-of-the-art autonomous cars that make the humble Cybervan look like a Roomba by comparison.
The Tartan Racing team from Carnegie Mellon, for instance, has more than 30 members, and corporate sponsors including GM, Caterpillar (nyse: CAT – news – people ), Continental and Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ). The Stanford university team, which won DARPA’s last 132-mile robotic race through the Mojave Desert event in 2005, has outfitted its more chic Volkswagon Passat with eight laser sensors and two of Intel’s (nasdaq: INTC – news – people ) quad-core blade servers, dwarfing the Cybervan’s processing power.
But even if smaller teams like Cybernet have little chance of beating the favorites, the race still holds out the potential for a different kind of purse: lucrative contracts from the military and private industry. DARPA hopes the technological advancements inspired by their race will make it possible to deploy driverless vehicles for supplying troops in wartime and reducing the number of American soldiers put in harm’s way. Industries like agriculture and mining are also keeping a close eye on the latest robotic workhorses.
All of that means these future cars, like their hot-rod ancestors of the 1950s, are graded on style as much as speed. Chuck Jacobus’s 11-year-old minivan, for instance, may not perform perfectly, but Team Cybernet wants to prove it can retrofit its robotic technology onto any car, even the U.S. Army’s aging fleet, whose vehicles Jacobus says are an average of 13 years old.
Another competitor, Oshkosh Trucks, has entered TerraMax, an 11-foot-tall, 12-ton robotic truck roughly the size of an 18-wheeler’s cab. TerraMax’s size and vague resemblance to Optimus Prime don’t give it much of an advantage in competition with smaller, more maneuverable cars. But more important is that Oshkosh’s offering is based on a common Marine supply vehicle, making a future deal with the military almost inevitable.
For the best example of how this unorthodox robotic engineering pays off, look no further than the short career of Ghostrider, the world’s first robotic motorcycle. In DARPA’s 2005 race, 23-year-old U.C. Berkeley student Anthony Levandowski led a team that entered the autonomous two-wheeler in the event’s rough, winding race. That strategy was as impractical as it sounds: Ghostrider toppled over in one of the event’s qualifying rounds, didn’t get up and was unceremoniously hauled off the course.
But Levandowski’s stunt got the attention of construction clients, who asked him to apply his technology to building a better bulldozer. Over the last year, his company, 510 Systems, has grown to 11 employees and sprouted $700,000 in contracts. At this DARPA race, Levandowksi now has a position on Stanford’s highly respected team.
“DARPA’s events are about pushing the edge of where things start to make business sense and where things are still science fiction,” Levandowksi says. “Once those lines are blurred, the adoption rate increases tremendously.”
In reality, this year’s competition may be DARPA’s least friendly for quirky entrants. In 2005, robots merely had to follow a track and negotiate gates and obstacles. This time, they have to contend with one another too. Simply to qualify for the race, competing robots must deal with unplanned roadblocks, wait their turn at four-way intersections and merge across a lane of traffic. Even Stanford’s legendary team leader, Sebastian Thrun, describes the event as “truly, insanely hard.”
“DARPA has set the bar very high in this race, and no one is guaranteed to finish,” he says. “Failure is absolutely an option.”
To deal with the race’s new challenges, Stanford has souped up its robot, called “Junior,” with a new, more flexible system of reasoning, more capable of improvising and planning around unexpected contingencies. If another vehicle swerves in front of Junior, for instance, the robotic Volkswagen (other-otc: VLKAF – news – people ) Passat will leave its lane–or even the road–to avoid a crash. “Sometimes we relax certain constraints when it makes sense,” Thrun says. “Other times we violate all the rules in order to make progress.”
Carnegie Mellon, for its part, has added about 300,000 new lines of code to its algorithms since 2005. Even pulling into a parking spot, “Boss,” the team’s adapted Chevy Tahoe, considers thousands of angles of approach and instantaneously chooses the best, according to team leader, Red Whittaker.
Teams with less advanced algorithms, however, can still be expected to cause a fair amount of havoc. “It’s going to be a demolition derby,” predicts Cybervan developer, Chuck Jacobus. “There’s going to be enough chaos out there that I’d be very surprised if no one hit each other.”
Two teams have already begun crunching metal in the preliminary trials that have been going on this past week: Georgia Tech’s vehicle collided with both a concrete barrier and an obstacle car in qualifiers. A robotic Prius, submitted by a small California team called the Golem Group, veered randomly into a curb on Monday, bursting a tire.
In both cases, other teams swooped in with tools and troubleshooting advice, a testament to the idea that the Urban Challenge is about more than who crosses the finish line first. “What we’re really competing for here is to make cars safer,” says Stanford’s Thrun. “Clearly everyone would like to win $2 million. But the bigger stakes are to change society.”