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Robots on the Road, Again

Oh, what a difference a year can make. Last year, 15 teams made it to the finals of the first Grand Challenge, a 142-mile (228-kilometer) road race across the desert Any type of vehicle could enter the contest, but there was one big twist. Drivers were not allowed. Neither were passengers nor remote controls. Vehicles had to drive themselves over rugged terrain and around obstacles, with no help from people. None of the entries made it. Any type of vehicle could enter the contest, but there was one big twist. Drivers were not allowed. Neither were passengers nor remote controls. Vehicles had to drive themselves over rugged terrain and around obstacles, with no help from people. None of the entries made it. After watching vehicle after vehicle stall, crash, or burn, competitors refined their strategies and learned their lessons. This year, five out of the 23 finalists completed the 130-mile (210-kilometer) course through the Mojave Desert along the California-Nevada border. The winner of the $2 million prize was a blue 2004 Volkswagen Touareg sports utility vehicle, nicknamed Stanley. Customized by researchers at Stanford University with help from industry partners such as Volkswagen, Stanley easily beat a 10-hour time limit on the race. It breezed past the finish line in just under 6 hours, 54 minutes, and its average speed was slightly more than 30 kilometers per hour (19 miles per hour). At times, it topped 60 kilometers per hour (37 miles per hour). Two vehicles developed by Carnegie Mellon University, Highlander and Sandstorm, came second and third. An earlier version of Sandstorm had competed in the first race and had traveled farther than any other entry. Race veteran Sandstorm finished third in this year's Grand Challenge. A U.S. government agency called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created and sponsored the Grand Challenge. Given a boost by DARPA's race, robotic vehicle technology is coming closer to fulfilling a government requirement that one-third of future army vehicles be driverless. The military would like to find better ways to transport goods during wartime without endangering soldiers. This year's resounding success was a result of recent advances in sensors and computer software, experts say. Stanley had five laser-beam sensors on its roof. It also had a specialized system for avoiding obstacles that was trained on data collected as human drivers navigated the car over a variety of terrain. Soldiers aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from the new technology. Someday, all cars and trucks might incorporate similar strategies to make our own road adventures safer and easier.E. Sohn

Robots on the Road, Again
Robots on the Road, Again








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