LA to Las Vegas: one car, no driver, no remote-control

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Tuesday December 16, 2003 The first automobile race was held in France in 1894, when 21 automobiles set out from Paris to Rouen and the winning automobile (a Peugeot) covered the 78 miles at an average speed of just over 10mph. An equally significant race will take place on 110 years later on March 13, 2004 when 24 vehicles will set out to travel the 250 miles from Las Angeles to Las Vegas. Like most motor racing, the rules are simple: stay on the course and finish first within ten hours - oh, and no drivers and no remote control. This is a race for robots!

The 'grand prix' is certainly that - US$1 million for first place and there is no second prize, both metaphorically and literally. A win in this race will mean a place in history - a permanent spot in the annals of human achievement.Competing teams will learn the exact route of the race just two hours before race time, with 1000 way points to negotiate, some with a margin for error of no more than a metre.

Once the flag falls, no human intervention is permitted, so the robotic vehicles must be completely autonomous in navigating the course, the myriad obstacles and making all the decisions usually made in split seconds by a human being - sensing the immediate surrounds at high speed and making hundreds of decisions a minute to optimize progress at every juncture while ensuring the reliability of the vehicle. Unlike normal racing, there are no pit crews, so if a car is immobilised for any reason, the race isover for that participant.

Anyone who has ever competed in a desert race will tell you there is no more unforgiving environment - the slightest misjudgement can end your event, be it a punctured tyre, an unexpected steep drop-away or a suspension-crunching tree-stump in the tundra. The robots of course don't have human eyes, so a vast array of innovative technology is being employed by the different teams to monitor the bush ahead, feeding information back to the decision-making module in the vehicle which is at the same time navigating the vehicle through the 1000 way-points and 250 miles of Mojave desert. Not surprisingly, the design strategy employed by the different teams varies greatly - some have opted for light, nimble and powerful purpose-built desert racing vehicles which will go faster in the open sections but be more vulnerable to having their suspension ripped off, while others have taken the heavy-duty approach, starting with a Hummer military vehicle and adding intelligence.

The race is the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is already exploring robots for almost every aspect of military usage, from unmanned combat aircraft, through to wearable robots for infantrymen. Given the lessons of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, DARPA wants the next ground war fought by the US to be done more with machines and less with human beings, so it has gone outside the defense industry to inject creativity into its next generation of unmanned ground combat vehicles.If you'd like to find out more, see article 2425 at Gizmo for all the links to the race organizers and the teams.

No sport drains the bank balance like motor-racing, and robot racing is a factor more expensive again - the teams which have formed to compete in this remarkable event combine expertise from a dozen fields not normal associated with racing. Team Cyberrider (main pic at top) is such a team, drawn from a dozen disciplines. Check out their web site ( and wonder where we will be in five years time when this expertise and innovative thought has some experience in the task at hand. Remember the vehicle in a controlled high speed drift above doesn’t have a driver, nor is it remotely controlled.

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