Driven by Design, from the Chronicle

The students were exultant that the driverless Volkswagen Touareg SUV they built had just snapped the tape at the Grand Challenge, a robot race through the Mojave Desert. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, the competition carries a $2-million prize. … The first race — held in the Mojave in 2004, at a cost of $13-million — had been a bust, with no robots coming close to completing the course. Many of those robotic vehicles performed so poorly, in fact, that the Pentagon’s long-term goal seemed unachievable.

Nevertheless, Darpa officials called last year’s race a success, arguing that it had produced plenty of technological insight even without a victor. [DARPA] turned the Grand Challenge into the United States’ best-financed and most-publicized robotics competition. And in a nation that, many observers say, is spending too little on robotics research, the event succeeded in attracting the best and the brightest from corporations and colleges. …

“I would say this is equivalent to what the Wright brothers did,” said Mr. Tether after Stanley had completed its run. “It shows that automated driving is something that can be done.” …

In a 2000 mandate, Congress required that at least one-third of the military’s ground vehicles must be computer-driven by 2010; since then, the target date has been pushed back to 2015. Pentagon officials seem interested in using automated vehicles not just for reconnaissance and transportation missions, but as an actual fighting force.

I have to say, if I could buy a car that had the chauffeur option package, I totally would. Forget military uses, I want to see this on the commercial market. Given how much various countries are spending on robotics, there’s probably a Hyundai in my future. My distant future, admittedly.

The DARPA Grand Challenge site