Cars Without Drivers
Teams compete to win the U.S. military’s $2 million grand prize.
By William Gurstelle
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency is famous for its pursuit of high-risk,
high-reward technologies. When DARPA bets on
technology, the wins or losses can be spectacular.
Its latest big bet came in the form of the third edition
of the DARPA Grand Challenge.
Known as the “Urban Challenge,” the contest took
place on a sunny November weekend at DARPAtown,
a specially setup racecourse on the grounds of the
vacant George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif.
There, some of the best and brightest makers
in the country were lured into tackling a difficult
problem that strongly appeals to their love of
making things. Unlike DARPA’s typical top-secret
projects, the Urban Challenge was designed to
publicly showcase the talents of top-level makers.
And the $2 million top prize doesn’t detract from
38 Make: Volume 14
the appeal either.
DARPA’s war planners want a way to keep soldiers
safe during dangerous supply missions. Their goal
is to develop a vehicle that can drive itself to a dangerous place and do what it needs to do — drop off
gear, deliver supplies, or pick up soldiers — without
risking the life of a human driver.
Toward this end, DARPA organized the Urban
Challenge. The barriers to entering the contest are
relatively low — any qualified team of engineers and
mechanics can compete. But winning the challenge
is a task of Herculean dimensions. To win, the team
must build a car that can autonomously maneuver a
60-mile course in an urban environment, “executing
simulated military supply missions while merging
into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, negotiating busy intersections, and avoiding obstacles.”
Photography by William Gurstelle