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Work around the clock. Spend tens of thousands of dollars. (At least.) Do the impossible. And get well rewarded by Uncle Sam. Dozens of small groups are driving to do just that by March 13, 2004. The impetus is the Grand Challenge, a race sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Show up with a vehicle that can direct itself from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in ten hours-sorry, no human help allowed-and you could win serious bragging rights. Oh, and a million dollars cash.

DARPA has long funneled money for esoteric research projects to large defense contractors and universities and has launched some amazing technical jumps including the Internet, which was originally called ARPANET. Now the agency has initiated an unusual effort to develop self-guiding military vehicles by pitting teams against each other in a race for new technology. The hope is ultimately to develop autonomous technology that will replace people with machines in many dangerous situations-and save money at the same time.

DARPA first became interested in autonomous devices in the late 1960s. In 1987, one agency-funded project created a vehicle that could travel 4.5 kilometers on varying pavement types and road widths at an average speed of 14.5 kilometers per hour. But none of the usual research suspects have come close to the performance that DARPA really wants: high speeds sustained for hundreds of kilometers over any type of terrain. So it has decided on something completely different from its usual approach of sending large checks to large organizations. Instead, the agency has invited any and all U.S.-based groups to build autonomous vehicles and enter a race from California to Nevada. Officials hope the competition will tempt not only academic and corporate researchers, but also some unknown genius. “This is the first time in about 40 years that DARPA [has opened] its doors for new technology [in which the project] was not run through either a campus or industry,” says Jaime Teuffer, owner of 5BEST, a San Diego consulting firm competing in the challenge.

The deal is good for DARPA: a million dollars is chicken feed in defense industry contracts, and the government pays only for demonstrated results. Contestants, on the other hand, have their work cut out for them. “We haven’t been given near the amount of time” that such a project would ordinarily entail, says Paul F. Grayson, chief engineer of American Industrial Magic of Traverse City, MI, which is fielding Team AV. Although Grayson started his effort after advance word of the contest leaked in the summer of 2002, most teams did not begin work until the official announcement in February.

The competition isn’t called the Grand Challenge for nothing. The exact route will remain unknown to the teams until two hours before the starting gun on March 13. It can run as long as 480 kilometers-both on roads and off-and must be completed in ten hours for an average speed of 48 kilometers per hour. But obstacles could disrupt the driving, and no human intervention will be allowed. “There will be spots that we will stop-either there’s an obstacle in the way or there will be a problem in the algorithms,” says David Anton van Gogh, leader of Team Caltech and a university staff member in engineering and applied science. “To make up the time we’ll have to be going 60 [miles per hour] at points.” (That translates to over 96 kilometers per hour.)

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