“A win’s always better than second or third,” said William “Red” Whittaker, leader of Tartan Racing. “It’s something we expected of Boss. It’s fast, it’s clean, and it’s perfected for driving in this race.”
At a press conference after the awards were presented, Whittaker said that he’d like to see more competitions like the Urban Challenge, and he’d like them to push the technology even further by subjecting the vehicles to more extreme conditions for a 24-hour period. “I’d like to see a race through the Rockies, through snow, rain, and fog,” he said. “See where we get in a day.”
Stanford’s team leader, Sebastian Thrun, said that he’d be interested in seeing robotic cars get better at more-difficult tasks, such as cornering and driving at high speeds. The vehicles in the Urban Challenge were able to handle mundane driving conditions, but to make consumers’ cars safer, digital technologies must be able to react to the sudden and the unexpected. Thrun proposed a man-versus-machine race that required more-difficult maneuvers at higher speeds. Charles Reinholtz, the leader of Virginia Tech’s team, was interested in seeing a competition in which all the vehicles communicated with each other, constantly sending and receiving data about their locations, a feature that he expects to see in autonomous vehicles in the future. The consensus was that within the next few years, technology deployed in the Urban Challenge will make its way into vehicles used for farming, mining, and exploring space. Completely autonomous consumer cars are more likely at least a decade away.
It’s unclear whether or not there will be another DARPA-sponsored robotic-car race, however. Tony Tether, the director of the agency, said that the races had already served an important purpose: dispelling the notion that it was impossible to build a car that could autonomously drive with traffic on city streets while obeying the rules of the road. “Once you show that something can be done,” he said, “then other people come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Hey, I can do better than that.’”
Smaller design teams can now prototype and deploy faster.