There was a $1 million purse for the race between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev. Few entrants were expected to finish the grueling event and, as it turned out, the best of the bunch went only 7.4 miles before calling it quits.
A military vehicle from Oshkosh Truck Corp. lasted a little more than a mile, even though the six-wheeled behemoth should have rolled through the desert with ease.
Another entrant, which resembled a golf cart, went only a few yards before its brakes locked and the engine started smoking.
There was a myriad of reasons why participants in the Grand Challenge 2004 washed out, but all of the entrants had one thing in common: They were robotic, autonomous vehicles without drivers or remote controls.
Such vehicles, while coming up short in the 142-mile race, are breaking new ground that eventually could save lives on battlefields. In the near future, for example, convoys of driverless vehicles could bring supplies to military front lines without jeopardizing the safety of troops.
That’s important because about one in four military casualties in Iraq is part of a supply convoy, said Gary Schmiedel, director of Oshkosh Truck’s advanced product engineering.
Oshkosh Truck has developed what may be the world’s largest autonomous vehicle. Named Terramax, the robotic version of a military truck can muscle its way over rocks, through five feet of water and up steep, off-road terrain that would bring a military Humvee to a grinding halt.
But in the desert race, Terramax earned the nickname “gentle giant” when it balked at a minor obstacle, perhaps a tumbleweed, and froze in its tracks.
The truck’s navigational software was almost too sensitive for its own good, company engineers said, after Terramax refused to crush the tumbleweed and then suffered a fatal software failure that knocked it out of the race.
“Almost everyone had different flavors of the same thing happen to them,” Schmiedel said. Some vehicles balked when they should have rolled over something. Some rounded corners too fast or too wide and spun off the course. Others took a left turn when they should have gone right, and got lost.
One vehicle became stuck in a fence. Another went off the edge of a steep drop and spun its wheels until the tires caught fire.
It’s not easy for a machine to learn to drive. A machine can interpret something such as a shadow on the road as an impassable obstacle. A ditch can appear to be a canyon or a cliff.
Behind-the-wheel decisions that are almost intuitive for a human can take huge amounts of computing power. Planning a path around obstacles, especially at high speeds, is a daunting task for a vehicle without a driver.
“The vehicle needs to know whether an obstacle is small enough to run over, or how far and which way to go around. Then it has to figure out how to get back on course,” Schmiedel said.
The tumbleweed incident aside, Terramax has accomplished a great deal in its driver’s training. It was one of only seven vehicles to complete a 1.3-mile off-road course prior to the 2004 Grand Challenge, and it did pretty well on race day considering that six of the entrants didn’t make it off the starting line.
“We are getting experience, and we are learning,” Schmiedel said.
Terramax is outfitted with stereo-vision cameras, plus radar and sonar that guide it through challenging terrain with the aid of global positioning mapping software. The truck’s complex sensor system allows it to “see” obstacles in the road, and six high-powered computers control driving and navigation.
By 2015, the Pentagon hopes to have hundreds of such robotic vehicles in use for missions ranging from reconnaissance to convoys. Terramax, stripped of sensors and computers, is already a combat-proven workhorse used extensively by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The battlefield is not always going to be a nice road,” said Jan Walker, spokeswoman for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Pentagon that sponsored the Grand Challenge for research purposes.
“We need autonomous vehicles with the ability to push through terrain and have the intelligence to understand it,” she said.
Terramax is coming back for the 2005 Grand Challenge, in October, and the prize money has been raised to $2 million for the first vehicle that completes the rugged desert course in under about 10 hours.
“We are toughening our baby up,” said Kirsten Skyba, Oshkosh Truck Corp. vice president of communications.
A $3 million Humvee from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, went the farthest in the 2004 Grand Challenge and also is coming back for the 2005 race. It managed to travel 7.4 miles before slipping off one side of the trail while trying to avoid a steep cliff on the other side.
Carnegie Mellon scientists are not worried about the performance of their vehicle, named Sandstorm. The technology is becoming more reliable, said William Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor.
“These things are not mystical,” he said.
The annual Grand Challenge attracts some of the nation’s best robotics research scientists and companies such as Oshkosh Truck that build sophisticated military vehicles.
It also has entries from individuals such as David and Bruce Hall, brothers who own a San Francisco Bay-area business that makes stereo subwoofers and home theater sound systems.
In the 2004 race, the Halls mounted a stereo-vision obstacle detection system on the roof of a Toyota pickup truck, along with electronics used to navigate and steer the vehicle. It went about six miles in the race before getting hung up on a large rock that it might have cleared at a little faster speed.
“We feel very good about our chances of winning in 2005,” Bruce Hall said. “And we are only going to invent autonomous vehicles once in our lifetime. We want to be a part of that.”
A six-wheeled vehicle called “Cajunbot,” from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, went about 50 yards before it was knocked out of the race.
“We hope to do much better in 2005,” said Arun Lakhotia, an engineering professor and one of Team Cajunbot’s managers. “In a philosophical sense we went very far, given that we had zero experience.”
There’s nothing implausible about robotic trucks traveling hundreds of miles across rugged terrain, even if some of the Grand Challenge entrants bonked in the first few yards, according to scientists and engineers.
John Deere Co., the maker of lawn tractors and farm machinery, has already developed a small, autonomous military vehicle that’s scheduled to be field-tested in 2005. It could be used for surveillance purposes and to carry soldiers’ backpacks, ammunition and supplies, reducing soldier fatigue.
The “Robotic Gator,” as it’s called, can relay real-time video and sounds to an operations post miles away, said John Deere spokesman Bill Klutho.
The sophistication of autonomous-vehicle technology is doubling about every year, and increased reliability is coming with experience, Whittaker said.
“The Wright brothers’ first flight wasn’t very long, or very far, and that airplane wasn’t something that would have made a cross-country flight. But it was characteristic of an emerging technology,” he added.
Copyright 2004 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.