We all know the basic facts about the DARPA Grand Challenge that pitted over 20 autonomous vehicles against each other and the elements out in the Mojave Desert last October. After watching the NOVA special The Great Robot Race on PBS last night the entire enterprise has taken on a whole new dynamic thanks to the excellent backstory provided by the program that reaches all the way back to the first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004.

While The Great Robot Race features background on many contenders, including a “nobody” darkhorse team from New Orleans that finished fourth overall just weeks after Katrina blew through its hometown, the main push of the program centers around the two teams from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. Sebastian Thrun heads the Stanford team, which is actually comprised of Carnegie Mellon defectors including Thrun himself, and they enter Stanley, a Touareg donated by Volkswagen, in the contest. Red Whittaker, an ex-marine turned college prof who presides over an army of graduate students and a pair of autonomous H1 Hummers named “H1ghlander” and “Sandstorm”, leads the Carnegie Mellon team.

Read on for more of the gritty details that led up to a showdown of these two teams in the desert.


As we already know, the affable Thrun and his smaller team from Stanford take the crown from Carnegie Mellon thanks to their focus on software and an innovative adaptive vision system that combines inputs from both laser sensors and video data. The picture above is a composite image of what Stanley actually “sees” out in the desert.

The two teams and their antithetical approaches were best illustrated when we’re shown what happens when officials finally release the course map to the contestants just hours before the race. It takes Thrun and his crew 29 minutes to load the 2,900 GPS way points into Stanley, leaving major decisions like speed to the expertly written software in Stanley’s computer brain. Whittaker, however, assembles his “Red Army” of grad students and attempts to plot and input every piece of available data into his two Hummers in order to take the load off of the onboard computers. Despite the extra effort on behalf of Whittaker’s team, Stanley could not be stopped and managed to make every right move on the 132-mile course.

Stanley's achievement is all the more impressive after watching The Great Robot Race, which should be airing multiple times over the next week and will be available to watch online in its entirety sometime today on NOVA's website. If you haven't already seen this show, you should. If you have seen it, let us know what you thought in the comments.