The race was barely two hours old when TerraMax ran into trouble. The 10-foot-tall robotic truck – the biggest by far of the 11 finalists in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge competition – maneuvered into a lot on the 60-mile course at an abandoned Air Force base near Victorville, California, aiming to prove its parking ability. But something went wrong. The truck, which like all the contestants was fully autonomous, veered off the tarmac and apparently nudged a vacant building.
And as quick as that, TerraMax’s race was over. The ‘bot, built by Oshkosh Trucks in Wisconsin, was ordered into impound, and over the next couple hours four more vehicles joined it, each disqualified for violating the fundamental rule repeatedly stressed by Darpa boss Tony Tether during months of team interviews and a week of qualifying trials that trimmed the 35 semi-finalists to just 11 for the November 3 finals: “Safety is paramount,” Tether said. Vehicles that swerved too far off the course, barreled through stop signs or collided with other robots or any of the roughly two-dozen Darpa cars – driven by professional stunt drivers to simulate traffic – were canned.
Tether’s obsession over safety wasn’t just about dodging lawsuits. The ultimate goal of Urban Challenge – the third race in Darpa’s “Challenge” series launched in 2004 – was to advance technologies that might one day bump some soldiers off vulnerable supply convoys, which have been especially hard-hit in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean that future logistics patrols will be totally robotic. Mixed convoys will require autonomous vehicles to get along with human-driven vehicles – on busy urban battlefields teeming with civilian vehicles and pedestrians, no less. Preserving life wasn’t a condition of Urban Challenge; it was the whole point.
Perhaps surprisingly, TerraMax was the only Urban Challenge contender based on an in-service military truck – the Marine Corps’ Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement – and the one most likely to lead to a production vehicle. If any of the robots on display in Victorville that cold morning end up actually saving soldiers’ lives in coming years, it’ll most likely be TerraMax.
Read the rest in the latest (and my last) issue of Defense Technology International.