$2 million prize at stake

Thursday, September 29, 2005; Posted: 10:51 a.m. EDT (14:51 GMT)
FONTANA, California (AP) -- It's the ultimate robot reality show: 43 contestants battling for a spot in a government-sponsored desert race intended to speed development of unmanned military combat vehicles.

The reward? A $2 million cash prize.

The autonomous robotic vehicles began competing Wednesday in the first of a series of qualifying rounds at the California Speedway. Half will advance to the October 8 starting line of the so-called Grand Challenge.

The grueling, weeklong semifinals are designed to test the vehicles' ability to cover a roughly 2-mile stretch of the track without a human driver or remote control.

Participants ranging from souped-up SUVs to military behemoths will be graded on how well they can self-drive on rough road, make sharp turns and avoid obstacles -- hay bales, trash cans, wrecked cars -- while relying on GPS navigation and sensors, radar, lasers and cameras that feed information to computers.

The robots also have to heed speed limits in certain zones and pass through a 100-foot-long tunnel designed to temporarily knock out their GPS capabilities.

None of that thwarted the first competitor, a converted Nissan Xterra built by the Colorado-based Mojavaton team. The vehicle finished in about 20 minutes to cheers from the grandstands.

A series of vehicles that came afterward stumbled and had to be manually driven off the speedway. One vehicle tried to go around two pieces of metal guardrail instead of between it and stalled. Another made an erroneous right turn at the start and rammed into the wall.

Last year's inaugural race in the Mojave Desert ended without a winner when all the entrants broke down before the finish line. The best performer was a converted Humvee built by Carnegie Mellon University, which traveled only 7 1/2 miles before having engine trouble.

The semifinalists, from more than a dozen U.S. states and Canada, were selected from a pool of about 200 entrants, which doubled from last year. They include a mix of computer programmers, mechanical engineers, college students, hot-rodders and off-road enthusiasts. more at link:http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/09/29/r....ap/index.html