The Robots of Victorville


The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Urban Challenge was held Saturday at a military training facility (read: spooky post-apocalyptic “peopleless suburb”) near Victorville. A $2 mil purse went to “Boss”, Cargenie Mellon’s robotized 2007 Chevy Tahoe, a completely autonomous aka SKYNET BATTLE ROBOT AUTONOMOUS vehicle that was the first to complete the difficult sixty mile obstacle course of stop signs, turns, intersections and race helmet humans in rollbar-reinforced obstacle cars. The program used to be ARPA before the Defense contractors started upping the ante. (I’m betting the purse was somewhat less than $2 mil in the old ARPA days.)

We began the day at 5am and drove east to behold the beautiful chlorofluorocarbons rise over the heads of the cool Canadian kids dressed up as a mountain range. The dusty air force base was freakin’ huge. I never heard so many robot jokes in all my life, walking the loneliest mile beside the human car chains to the stadium of 7,000+. We sang the national anthem like at any ball game–you’d think this was NASCAR–and then, one by one, like rats in a maze, the robots left their gates and begin working out the course.

Most robots drove (drive? drove?) like your grandmother: one foot on the gas, one foot on the break. The crowd of 7,000+ cheered for anything they did. So let me get this over with: one small step for sentience, one giant step for A.I.


We walked to watch their missions from the streets. Perhaps it is law, but robotic cars have to have car alarms going off as they proceed, as if to say “I am a robot! Get out of my way!” We were none so reassured by huge cement barricades and chain link in place for our protection, for even this measure could not have stopped a berserk elephantine Team Oshkosh Truck from running rampant should he get fail to recover from a blue screen of death.

In the tent where robots are observed by helicopter, two robots came to the same intersection and waited for the other to go. It’s very philosophical, isn’t it. You want to know what happened? The crowd started yelling “Go! Go!” and one of the robots heard him and made a move. And wheeled out into the intersection in front of the other robot. And the other robot waited for him and then he went. It’s too much like real life!

I was expecting the robot demolition derby, so after they passed their driver’s test for the fourteenth time, I had about as much as could fucking stand and took off. Heard there was one accident that got everybody excited. But this: even robots are paying $3.25 for gas nowadays, so maybe we ought, should, you know… aw, forget it.

The Urban Challenge happens every two years and is free and open to the public.