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The Brilliance within DARPA

+ Kari Kohn

Self-driving cars are often associated with Google.  However, in a piece for the New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger recounts their history, and Google did not enter the scene in act one.  DARPA lead the way, and various academic institutions played supporting roles.

And though Congress had set a goal that a third of all ground combat vehicles be autonomous by 2015, little had come of the effort. Every so often, Thrun recalls, military contractors, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, would roll out their latest prototype. “The demonstrations I saw mostly ended in crashes and breakdowns in the first half mile,” he told me. “DARPA was funding people who weren’t solving the problem. But they couldn’t tell if it was the technology or the people. So they did this crazy thing, which was really visionary.”

They held a race.

The first DARPA Grand Challenge took place in the Mojave Desert on March 13, 2004. It offered a million-dollar prize for what seemed like a simple task: build a car that can drive a hundred and forty-two miles without human intervention.

The Grand Challenge proved to be one of the more humbling events in automotive history. Its sole consolation lay in shared misery.

Three months later, the agency announced a second Grand Challenge for the following October, doubling the prize money to two million dollars. To win, the teams would have to address a daunting list of failures and shortcomings, from fried hard drives to faulty satellite equipment.

While it is interesting to learn the back stories of the brilliant technologists pushing autonomous vehicles to the next level, it would be worthwhile to pay tribute to and to learn from the brilliant person or people at DARPA who came up with the idea of holding a prize competition. Who were they?  And how did they come up with this idea?  Because, as Bilger writes:

In one year, they’d made more progress than DARPA’s contractors had in twenty.

That feat was truly brilliant, and DARPA recognized its brilliance by holding a second competition and raising the bar and the stakes.  Rules are the ways in which we organize human interactions, and unfortunately, those who innovate around rules often take a backseat to those who innovate around technologies.  They are equally important, and this is a great example of how the evolution of both technologies and rules is necessary to drive human progress.

Tile image by: Spaceape

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