One of the biggest technology stories of the past 20 years zipped right past us on October 8th with little more than a yawn from world of television news.
The story—driverless vehicles racing across the rugged terrain of the Mojave Desert for a $2 million purse—could have provided the kind of visuals that TV news crews crave. But the race was run on a Saturday, pitting it head to head with the weekend college football lineup, and the seemingly arcane story of robotic vehicles in the desert received far less news exposure than it deserved.
Still, there's plenty of race coverage remaining on the Web. And that's important, because the results of this race could forever change the way we look at land vehicles. Five vehicles finished the 132-mile course, rolling over sand dunes and rivers, traversing mountain roads and avoiding obstacles with nary an iota of human intervention. It's entirely possible that this race could be viewed as a technology landmark a century from now.
For those who want to learn more about the vehicles—particularly their sensing, computing, and by-wire capabilities—there's ample information on the Web. To learn about the race's qualifying teams, its vehicles, and its technology, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4400-531. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has provided a brief synopsis of each team here. Similarly, DARPA has posted race results for each team at http://rbi.ims.ca/4400-532.
Some of the most intriguing information is available in the form of video clips at various sites. DARPA offers race video at www.grandchallenge.org. Race clips of Stanford University's victorious vehicle, known as "Stanley," show it navigating gravel roads and hills on the desert course, and can be obtained by clicking on "downloads."
Some of the most telling video clips, however, are the pre-race clips posted at Stanford University's site. Those clips show Stanley at the Grand Challenge's National Qualifying Event days before the race, speeding around plastic cones and parked cars. For video of Stanley on each of seven National Qualifying Event days, go to Stanford's site: www.stanfordracing.com.
Those who want deeper technical detail can find that, too at http://rbi.ims.ca/4400-533. White papers written by each team describe their sensing and computing technologies, as well as the size and geometry of their vehicles.
Finally, you can find race post-mortems at some of the individual team sites. Carnegie Mellon, which designed and built the second and third place finishers, offers "race logs" on its site. The logs explain some of the technical difficulties the vehicles experienced, even to the point of showing graphs explaining how and why they slowed down at certain points. For Carnegie Mellon's post-mortems, go to http://rbi.ims.ca/4400-534.
To be sure, there's a mountain of information available on the Web from other race teams, as well. We've just scratched the surface here.
So if you missed the spotty national news coverage of a month ago, don't worry. Thanks to determined efforts by DARPA and by the teams themselves, an important day in history has been intelligently chronicled on the Web.
Reach Senior Technical Editor Chuck Murray at email@example.com.