No driver, no problem in robot car race

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VICTORVILLE, Calif, Nov 3 (Reuters) Cars sprouting whirling lasers on top, moving cameras on the sides, and banks of computers inside will take to the streets of a fake city today in a robot race -- no drivers needed.

The robot car race is the latest US Defense Department challenge to universities, companies and inventors who last turned out in 2005 to send driverless cars more than 160 km through the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The cars run completely by computer, without human intervention, using sensors to plot and pick their way. today, the Urban Challenge sends them along neighborhood roads, through traffic and around jams created by humans in about 50 cars equipped with roll cages -- in case of robot road rage.

The course will be 100 km and the race will last up to six hours.

''We'll be lucky if we make two hours,'' said one course organizer who declined to give his name, describing qualifying events in which robot cars simply stopped, lost in thought, climbed over curbs and sideswiped parked vehicles in this windy desert facility 130 km northwest of Los Angeles.

Eleven vehicles from a field of 89 made it to the finals and a chance at a 2 million dollars prize.

The evening before the race, engineers sped in rented sport utility vehicles toward a 24,500-pound (11-tonne) green truck that was driving itself around the parking lot of the minor-league High Desert Mavericks baseball team.

BIGGEST COMPETITOR The Oshkosh Truck Corp's 12-foot-tall (3.5-metre-tall) TerraMax is the biggest entrant in the course -- which was widened so it could fit.

But in the parking lot, the truck avoided SUVs, squeezed between barriers and nimbly turned around at a blockade constructed by crafty humans.

That's a lot better than Oshkosh's first effort in a 2004 cross-desert race with no finishers.

''The last thing it saw was a bush in front of it,'' sighed Chris Yakes, Oshkosh's advanced products director, describing how a computer memory error ended that trial. The 2004 desert race was the first Grand Challenge by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department's research arm known as DARPA.

But an Oshkosh truck finished the 2005 desert race with flying colors.

''Other than having a kid or getting married, I don't know if there's anything more exciting than seeing your robot coming over the horizon and bounding past the finish line at 45 miles per hour,'' Yakes said.

Oshkosh trucks supply US troops in Iraq and elsewhere and a driverless version is exactly what DARPA wants in order to cut the number of soldiers' lives at risk in battle.

Universities also see interesting artificial intelligence problems to solve, and corporations see the building blocks of an automobile of the future.

But the future is coming slowly. The Volkswagen Passat by Stanford University, the front-running team thanks to winning the 2005 desert race, was befuddled in a qualifying round when course organizers started communicating by radio, interfering with its fancy technology.

''As soon as DARPA communicated with the hand-held radios, we saw obstacles all around,'' said VW engineer Suhrid Bhat.

The team fixed the problem relatively easily, but others lie ahead.

''It's going to be a mess,'' said Stanford artificial intelligence doctoral student Jesse Levinson. For safety, the goal is perfection, he said. ''It's not very hard to make a robot that doesn't hit anything most of the time,'' he added.

REUTERS SKB RN1709

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