One great race - no drivers

The thought of an epic race across the country might conjure up images of the 1965 movie "The Great Race." But in a 21st-century version starting Saturday, the roles of drivers Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are being replaced by (what else?) machines.

The challenge is daunting. The robot racers have 10 hours to complete about a 250-mile trek from Bartstow, Calif., to Las Vegas, mostly through the Mojave Desert. They'll have to avoid rocks, trees, and critters that could block their path.

One other detail: No human intervention is allowed. The vehicles will have to rely on computer vision, GPS receivers, lasers, software, and other high-tech gear to navigate independently.

The goal of the Grand Challenge race is to test and develop navigation technologies and automated vehicles that could someday save lives in military convoys by carrying food or oil across unfriendly highways. It's part of a Pentagon plan to have a third of all military ground vehicles unmanned by 2015. Smaller robots also could wend through caves and tunnels looking for foes and booby traps. Eventually, such technologies could end up in civilian vehicles.

But there are questions about the technologies, and race observers wonder whether even a single robot will finish Saturday's race in the allotted time. Teams that took part in trials earlier this week failed in their first try to finish a flat obstacle course strewn with bricks, gravel patches, and metal rods.

"It's a marriage of the geeks and the greaseballs," says Sal Fish, the lead designer of the course. "If they go even two miles, I'll be in awe."

For months now, backyard inventors have been scrambling to build their robot racers. The winning team gets a $1 million prize, courtesy of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), and a chance to show off its engineering and programming prowess. If all goes as hoped, a vehicle will recognize on its own whether it's speeding toward a tumbleweed or a boulder. If things go really well, it will correctly tell its steering and braking systems what to do.

Even race organizers are skeptical the cars will manage. "I'm sure one of them is going to go off the cliff," says a spokesman who requested anonymity. "I hope our camera team is there to catch that."

Some of the challenge stems from the race course itself. Part of it runs through narrow, mountain trails with sharp turns. Then there's the desert's disdain for tires and fuel injectors - or the chance that a spot of mud could blind a laser system. There's also the technology itself, much of it still in its early stages.

For example, coordinating sensors with navigation and steering systems has proved a daunting challenge. The machines have difficulty discerning dips in the road and figuring out whether they can drive over a "soft" bush or whether the object is a rock that could cause damage.

The autonomous racers, which include souped-up dune buggies, all-terrain vehicles, and a 28-foot troop carrier, have been built by high school students, computer programmers, and college students from all over the country.

The 20 or so teams have corporate sponsors, and many have spent more than the $1 million prize on their inventions.

Their vehicles are backyard mechanics' versions of the NASA rovers exploring Mars.

But the Grand Challenge course might actually be tougher. After all, there are no coyotes, speed requirements, or traffic to contend with on Mars. Nor do Martian explorers face the possibility that if they enter a tortoise habitat near the route, the human observersfollowing each vehicle will hit the kill button to protect the animals and disqualify the vehicle.

Student engineers won't know what the route is until two hours before the race starts, when DARPA will give competitors a CD-ROM with GPS coordinates. They can do some last-minute programming to adjust to the topography, but after that vehicles must navigate on their own.

The most feared competitor - Carnegie Mellon University's "Red Team" - has been scrambling all week after its $3 million-plus 1986 Hummer rolled over during practice last week, forcing quick repairs to antennae and sensors. The team, whose sponsors include Intel Corp. and Boeing Co., is led by William "Red" Whittaker, who used robots to explore Antarctica in 1993.

Corporations see plenty of commercial applications emerging out of this race, and they're showing support by donating equipment and advice to teams.

Though the days of drivers sleeping safely during their morning commutes are far away, John Deere, which has supplied GPS systems to some DARPA teams, says it may get new ideas for a driverless tractor it is developing to spray apple orchards. Other firms are looking into collision-avoidance systems.

"We assume there will be major DARPA contracts from this," says John Porter of Team SciAutonics, formed mainly by Rockwell employees who hope to become a funded company after the race.

Reporting from the Associated Press was included in this article.

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