When Stanford University’s robotic Volkswagen Touareg, “Stanley,” won the Grand Challenge last week, robot enthusiasts everywhere cheered. By completing a 210-kilometer course over difficult desert terrain in just under seven hours, Stanley set an unprecedented milestone for autonomous vehicles.
Even more amazingly, four other teams’ vehicles also completed the course, with slightly slower times.
“It’s kind of like if you had challenged people to fly across the Atlantic, and instead of one guy [making it], just Lindbergh, you had five guys flying across at the same time,” says Sebastian Thrun, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford and the leader of the Stanford team.
The Lindbergh analogy is apt. Both the famed aviator and the Stanford team were motivated to accomplish their feat by the tantalizing promise of prize money. In Charles Lindbergh’s case, it was a $25,000 purse that wealthy hotelier Raymond Orteig offered, in 1919, for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. In 1927, a 25-year-old Lindbergh finally captured the prize, by taking off from Long Island and landing in Paris 33 1/2 hours later, in a $10,000, custom-built monoplane named after his financial backers’ hometown, St. Louis.
For the Stanford team, winning the Grand Challenge meant collecting the $2 million prize put up by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) earlier this year. Not a bad return on a project that Thrun estimates cost about $500,000.
The Grand Challenge is just the latest example of how prize money can be an effective – and extremely efficient – way to stimulate rapid technological development. And while prizes might not work in every field of technological research, observers say it might be time to explore the prize model more deeply, particularly as the United States launches several multibillion-dollar projects, such as replacing the Space Shuttle, returning to the Moon, and sending humans to Mars.
DARPA’s mission is to stimulate research in defense-related areas, then leave development of viable applications to others. That’s exactly how this year’s Grand Challenge played out, with 195 teams entering the competition, five teams successfully completing the course – and a whole new crop of inventors, engineers, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and even high-school students stimulated to enter the field of autonomous vehicles.
That will undoubtedly pay dividends for the military in the future, since many of the universities and corporations that fielded Grand Challenge teams also work on DARPA projects. Thrun’s work, for instance, has been attracting DARPA funding for more than eight years, and he intends to continue applying for defense grants in the future.
Competing in the Challenge offered benefits to the teams and their sponsors, too, even for those that didn’t win, says Jon Feiber, a managing partner at Menlo Park, CA-based Mohr Davidow Ventures, a venture capital firm that cosponsored the Stanford team. Among the payoffs were educating students, raising the level of interest in (and funding for) robotics, forging partnerships between academic engineering departments and industry, and making connections among researchers, students, and DARPA personnel.
Of course the Grand Challenge isn’t the only recent feat of engineering inspired by the tantalizing promise of a pot of lucre for the victors. Last year’s Ansari X Prize paid $10 million to aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne team for completing two suborbital space flights at an altitude of at least 100 kilometers in the span of two weeks.