As Sandstorm turned the first corner and began to disappear into the open desert, his laser scanner detected a clear path ahead and his detailed map data indicated it was time to hit the accelerator. Sandstorm’s wheels spun, stirred up dust, and washed it away at over 30 mph.
For Chris Urmson and his teammates, the moment has come. It was the first time they had let their robot out of sight and out of their control. There was nothing more to do. No more testing, no more repairs. Sandstorm would complete the course, or not. And his first big test was just a few miles ahead. The trick to getting up and over Daggett’s Ridge was to master switchbacks, hairpin turns so tight that following a GPS path alone could easily send a vehicle falling out of the way and descending hundreds of feet. So could a misaligned sensor or a number of software issues. If you could get over that hurdle, however, it was back on flat ground and generally clear roads, almost smooth sailing all the way to Primm.
Over the next 20 minutes, three more vehicles exited the gate, following Sandstorm’s trail. It looked like Tether was going to have a real race, even after some very volatile performances in the qualifying round. Then the problems started.
The sixth offline was Axion Racing, a group of friends from San Diego, funded by an investor in a company importing bottled water from Micronesia. Over the past year, Melanie Dumas, an engineer who had called the Grand Challenge impossible and not worth trying, had seen her skepticism and reluctance turn into growing optimism.
She had seen her team’s Jeep roll over that kind of terrain and drive well. She even thought that with any luck it might overtake Carnegie Mellon’s sandstorm. When the flag waved, the Jeep exited the chute and made the first turn smoothly. But as the first narrow door approached, he turned around. All around the. There was no obvious reason for the about-face. Perhaps the sensors had judged the opening too tight. Maybe something else had acted. It didn’t matter. As the Jeep headed back to the start line, sending his pursuit vehicle back like a linebacker, Darpa hit his emergency stop. The Axion Grand Challenge was over in seconds. Dumas was devastated.
Next was the six-wheeled Cajunbot from the University of Louisiana. He hit a wall on his way out of the chute, knocking himself out of action. She was followed by the tub of an Ensco bot. As the flag fluttered, it froze for a few seconds, rolled forward, stopped, then started again. He drifted to the left, where the side of the road tilted upward, tilting to one side before returning to flat ground. Then he left again, this time too far. He turned around and landed sideways, 1000 feet in a 142 mile course. The entire race lasted 1 minute and 6 seconds.
A group of students from Palos Verdes High School had spent the night before the race scrambling to repair their vehicle’s steering controls. At the last moment, they chose a solution they hoped would work, without having time to test it. Their prayer went unanswered. Their entry, Doom Buggy, never turned at all. It took place in a straight line and, after 50 meters, struck a concrete barrier.
SciAutonics I, led by an engineer who had worked on Germany’s autonomous driving efforts in the 1980s, saw his ATV go off the beaten track, never to return. (The SciAutonics II traveled about seven miles before getting stuck on an embankment.) The University of Florida Cimar swerved half a mile and got tangled in a metal fence. Terramax, the 14-ton, lime-green six-wheeled military truck, traveled 1.2 miles before getting stuck between a pair of small bushes its sensors mistook for stationary obstacles. Tired of watching him go back and forth like a driver trying to escape from an impossibly tight parallel parking space, Tony Tether ordered the kill.