Inside the Races That Jump-Started the Self-Driving Car
Self-driving cars aren’t just here. They are, it seems safe to say, just about everywhere—roaming the streets of San Francisco, New York City, Phoenix, Boston, Singapore, Paris, London, Munich, and Beijing. And as Waymo (Google’s self-driving car project) launches the world’s first fleet of truly driverless cars in Arizona, nearly every automaker, all serious tech companies, and a flock of startups are rushing to colonize an industry that has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives—and generate trillions of dollars.
Daily news reports about self-driving cars no longer surprise. What retains its shock value is how quickly we’ve gotten here. Ten years ago, there was no reason to think the idea of being whisked about town by a collection of zeroes and ones while you napped or texted or watched TV was anything but the province of science fiction.
Some people knew better. Namely, the folks watching a group of robots roam an abandoned Air Force base outside Los Angeles, moving through intersections, merging into traffic, finding their own parking spaces, and more.
Those robots were competing in the Urban Challenge, the third and final competition for autonomous vehicles hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as Darpa. Congress had tasked the Pentagon skunk works with developing driverless cars to help keep American soldiers safe, but Darpa didn’t give out contracts to its usual stable of defense contractors. It decided to put on a race, with a $1 million prize for whoever built a self-driving car that drove 142 miles through the Mojave Desert the fastest.
“Anybody could show up, and you saw everybody show up,” says Melanie Dumas, a software engineer who had a day job working on voice recognition for use in Abrams tanks, and was exactly the sort of person Darpa hoped might be able to make a driverless car. “It felt like it was anybody’s game.”
Spoiler alert: It was nobody’s game. Every vehicle in that first Grand Challenge in 2004 crashed, failed, or caught fire, most of them in sight of the starting line. But when the smoke and haze from the fire extinguisher cleared, the people in the desert realized the race had fostered a community of young men and women convinced that driverless cars were possible. By the end of the Urban Challenge—10 years ago this month—that community had made them a reality.
Now its members are the luminaries of the burgeoning self-driving car industry, changing the way people move about the planet. This is the story of how they got there.
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