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Fifteen driverless vehicles came to the starting line on Saturday. None finished the 142 mile Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas course, and so the Pentagon’s $1 million “Grand Challenge” prize will go unclaimed. The best performances were the 7.4 miles achieved by a Carnegie Mellon team and 6.6 miles by a SciAutonics vehicle. Most of the other 15 teams in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency competition managed only a few hundred yards before getting stuck, going hopelessly off course, or succumbing to some other malfunction.

The trek across the Mojave Desert turned into a Murphy’s Law jubilee, as everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The Carnegie Mellon vehicle’s journey ended when it got caught on a berm and the rubber on the front wheels caught fire. The Sci-Autonics entry got stuck in an embankment. Some other entries from DARPA’s race log:

Team Caltech: At mile 1.3, vehicle veered off course, went through a fence, tried to come back on the road, but couldn’t get through the fence again.

Axion Racing: Vehicle circled the wrong way in the start area.

Team ENSCO: Vehicle moved out smartly, but, at mile 0.2, when making its first 90-degree turn, the vehicle flipped.

Team TerraMax: Several times, the vehicle sensed some bushes near the road, backed up and corrected itself. At mile 1.2, it was not able to proceed further.

The Golem Group: At mile 5.2, while going up a steep hill, vehicle stopped on the road, in gear and with engine running, but without enough throttle to climb the hill. After trying for 50 minutes, the vehicle was command-disabled.

DARPA is expected to hold another autonomous vehicle challenge, possibly in 2006. TR previewed the Grand Challenge last summer.

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