There are so many things that I could have done this week. Like go to the SEMA show in Vegas. Or to the auto show in Tokyo. Or the national media launch of the smart in San Jose. Or the launch of the Chevrolet Malibu in Memphis. But I turned them all down. Instead, I'm going to the DARPA Urban Challenge in Victorville, California.
The what in where, you ask?

OK, first some background. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They're part of the Defense Department charged with pushing the envelope in all kinds of technologies. For example, back in the '60s they are the ones who invented the internet.

The Urban Challenge is a competition organized by DARPA for autonomous vehicles, that is, for vehicles that can drive themselves. These vehicles have to be able to drive for hours through a pre-determined course with no driver, or any kind of human input. These are not radio-controlled vehicles. They have to do it all on their own.

Actually this is the third race that DARPA has organized. The first one, in 2004, was something of a flop. Not one vehicle made it to the finish line. In fact, the farthest any one traveled was just over 7 miles before it crashed. The second time they held it five vehicles finished, running through a 132-mile course in the desert. This year promises to be the best yet.

Most of the 35 semi-finalists come from universities and small, high-tech companies, primarily from the United States but with a handful from Germany. And now the race is starting to catch the attention of some of the car companies, too.

DARPA is interested in autonomous vehicles for purely military reasons. Right now their focus is developing autonomous supply trucks so fewer of our courageous soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are exposed to IED's and suicide bombers.

Automakers are interested in the Urban Challenge because autonomous vehicles represent the next big breakthrough for the industry. Forget about fuel cells, hybrids or alternative fuels. They merely change how we power cars. Driverless vehicles will completely change the automobile as a transportation device.

First off, you'll never have to deal with stop-and-go traffic jams again. Just let your car handle all the hassles while you read, sleep or get some work done. Moreover, you'll never have to search for a parking spot. Just have your car drop you at the door and let it go park itself. Then, when you need your car, pick up your cell phone and call it. Thanks to GPS and satellite linkups it will know where to come get you. If you have children, you can toss them the car keys to go visit their friends or where ever else they need to be. If you're a senior citizen who shouldn't be driving on the highways or at night, no problem, you will not have to surrender your mobility. And best of all we can go back to drinking and driving again, since we really won't be driving!

I know, I know, all you enthusiasts out there are cringing. I've heard it a thousand times before: "I love driving! I'll never buy a car that can drive itself."

And that's OK. Not everyone will want one. Though I suspect that with our multi-vehicle households, most people will end up with an autonomous car in their driveway anyway.

Of course, this technology isn't ready for production yet. My analogy is that autonomous vehicles are about where cell phones were in 1980. But give 'em time, they're on their way. And next week I'll report on what I learned at the DARPA Urban Challenge about just how far this technology has come.

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