The DARPA Challenge and Government Involvement in Autonomous Cars Going Forward

When people today think of the big players in the autonomous vehicle field, they gravitate towards companies like Tesla, Audi, and Waymo. These are established names in the industry, all of whom are in pursuit of a production autonomous vehicle. One major player who is often overlooked though is the US government. Many see the government as a roadblock rather than a catalyst for the future of self-driving cars. There is a general sentiment in the AV community that one of the main reasons we do not have self-driving cars on the road already is that our legislation is lagging behind the technology and prevents companies from testing and developing on public roads. While the fact that one cannot legally ride in a driverless car on American roads today may seem to support this train of though, let us not forget that much of the innovation in the AV world today was actually sparked by a government-sponsored competition called the DARPA Challenge.

Flash back to 2004. The American military had for a long time been interested in developing autonomous vehicles in order to make ground combat more safe for troops. While the military has made great technological strides in the past in areas like space travel and the internet, this time around they decided to outsource the task to the general public. This same year, Congress authorized DARPA, which stands for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, to create a competition with a $1 million prize purse. The winner would have to send an autonomous vehicle across a 142 mile stretch of a California highway[1]. That year, not a single team managed to complete the task, and the most successful group only sent their vehicle 7 miles. Not to be discouraged, DARPA announced that they would run the competition again the next year and double the prize to $2 million to the winning team. This time around, the race would be a 132 mile off-road course. 5 teams completed the race in 2005, with Stanford taking first place and finishing the course in 6 hours and 54 minutes[2]. The winning car and a highlight reel of the competition can be found below.

DARPA continued to run annual competitions up until 2013, with the teams coming back year after year with increasingly impressive vehicles. In fact, these competitions really ought to be credited as kick-starting the past couple years’ focus on and extensive coverage of autonomous cars. Those same people who were first introduced to the AV industry through the DARPA challenge in 2004 are now some of the major players and leaders in the field today[3]. It is clear then that the government has had a massive role in the development of driverless cars. The bad rep that the government gets in many discussions may be a little ungrateful. The fact remains though that our legislation is not up to speed with existing technology. Furthermore, while the DARPA challenge was a fantastic booster to the AV industry, the government has since failed to continue its commitment to autonomous technology. Given the success of this competition, it is a shame that similar events have failed to emerge since then. If the government were more proactive about opening up military and defense contracts in the AV field, we would see major technological developments and advances that would trickle into the AVs that we drive, not to mention keep soldiers safer in battle, which was the original purpose of the DARPA challenge. Overall, while the military and government played a key role in getting AVs off the ground, they have not upheld the commitment to a future with self driving cars.

The SELF DRIVE Act was vague and more of a set of norms than a set of laws, and the Department of Defense has remained silent on the matter since the final DARPA challenge in 2013. All this being said, I believe that a renewed interest in AVs by the government could significantly lessen the time we must wait for full level 5 autonomy in the United States.

[1] https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2014-03-13

[2] http://archive.darpa.mil/grandchallenge05/GC05winnerv2.pdf

[3] https://www.wired.com/story/darpa-grand-urban-challenge-self-driving-car/

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