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High speed with no one at the steering wheel sounds like a recipe for flaming mounds of wreckage. The teams are employing varying strategies to solve the attendant problems. Caltech and Carnegie Mellon have an obvious wealth of resources, especially in the software that will be critical to controlling the vehicle. Grayson’s group, on the other hand, has split its design into tiny bits and is farming them out around the world to qualified individuals who have a little time and want to be involved. “You can impose on some of the world’s experts when you are dealing with short times,” he says. For a brief period, Grayson says, he had “the number eight guy in neural networks and the number three guy in computer game coding working on his team.”

Differing tactics are also abundant in solving the problem of autonomous steering. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for an inertial guidance system, for example, Grayson plans to buy a surplus model for scrap metal prices. Both the CyberRider team, based in Irvine, CA, and Team 1010Delta, run by robotics consulting firm VIDEOptions of Lake Oswego, OR, will use video processing to detect obstacles. Virtually all the teams, however, are using gasoline-based vehicles to obtain the speed, power, and endurance that the winner will need.

With cars, computers, guidance electronics, and software to procure, the expenditures are serious, and paying for the projects is a fundamental problem. Grayson and American Industrial Magic plan to sell advertising space on their vehicle. Other teams are self-funding their projects. “We have four business owners on our team that can contribute hard cash when needed,” says Ivar Schoenmeyr, leader of the CyberRider team, which is based in Irvine, CA, but has members at MIT and also in Stuttgart, Germany. Schoenmeyr thinks that his team’s cost could run $100,000. Caltech has budgeted $400,000 for its effort-half earmarked for salaries and the rest for hardware, including a $14,000 1996 Chevy Tahoe.

Making money go a long way is tough. “I think we paid too much [for the car], because when I was writing the check, the salespeople were a bit too happy,” Caltech’s van Gogh remembers. All the teams are depending on sweat equity: Grayson’s typical day runs from 5:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night, while Caltech will have used roughly 13,000 person-hours by race day in March. “A lot of the kids sacrificed some of their school work during the spring term,” van Gogh says. “They could have gotten A’s easily, but they worked on this too long.”

What are the chances that anyone might win? It depends on whom you ask. Van Gogh thinks that there is a 90 percent chance that his team’s final vehicle could run the course if there were no time limit. The real challenge, he says, is the ten-hour countdown. “If we take high risks, I think the chances are over 50 percent,” he says. “If we don’t take any risks, then they’re definitely under 50 percent-probably 20 percent.” And yet VIDEOptions’ Team 1010Delta reported a successful practice run in late June and now is confident that it can complete the task.

Still, the outcome is far from certain and the costs are serious. So why are so many groups taking a stab at the Grand Challenge? Some want to publicize their companies. But all are driven by the chance to say that they beat the best technical talent in the world. “This is an opportunity to, if you were an athlete, enter the Olympics,” Schoenmeyr says. “The only prerequisites are if you think you’re smart enough to pull it off.” And if no one wins, there’s always next year to show who’s really in the driver’s seat.

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