Robotic cars, scorching hot sun, endless desert, and a lone journalist gasping for breath as he battles through the massed crowds on a disused military base. No, this isn't the dystopian world described in the opening pages of Frank Herbert's long lost seventh instalment in the Dune series. This was the DARPA Urban Challenge.
The DARMA what?
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge is the most challenging robot car race ever to be conceived. 11 cars competing against each other, and the clock, to complete a 60 mile course around a deserted military base within six hours. Not only would the cars have to negotiate a tricky street course full of static obstacles they would also have to avoid each other and the 35 human driven cars out there at the same time. Oh, and in case you thought I meant radio controlled cars, a la Robot Wars, think again. These cars were completely independently controlled by on-board computers. Yes, these cars could think for themselves!
Following on from two previous challenges that saw cars racing across the open desert, the DARPA Urban Challenge was the next step in proving the ability of computer controlled cars to not just drive themselves in a static enviroment but also successfully obey the rules of the road in moving traffic. It's all part of a grand plan to push forward the development of fully autonomous ground vehicles, which eventually the military hopes to use. Whether or how soon we will see the fruits of these challenges in the foreseeable future is anyone's guess but for the time being it's fascinating to see just what a few spinning LASERs, a couple of computers, and a whole lot of ingenuity can do.
We've watched with great interest over the last few years, as the previous races have taken place but we've never had the chance to go out to and witness the races for ourselves. So, when Intel, which is sponsoring two of the teams participating, invited us out to report on the Urban Challenge and get to talk face to face with the brilliant minds that have been hard at work creating these contraptions, we leapt at the chance.
Now, I've been to America a few times in my life and I've also had the dubious pleasure of driving half way across Canada before but even so, nothing quite prepared me for the vast deserted wilderness that is California. The two hour drive from Los Angeles airport to Barstow, the nearest town to the military base that had hotel rooms available, revealed mile upon mile of the same barren landscape punctuated only by the occasional town or city that would just pop up out of nowhere along the Route 15 Interstate - this really wouldn't be the sort of place to get lost in.