FONTANA, Calif. - It's the ultimate robot reality show: 43 contestants battling for a spot in a government-sponsored desert race intended to speed development of unmanned military combat vehicles.
The reward? A $2 million cash prize.
The autonomous robotic vehicles planned to compete Wednesday in the first of a series of qualifying rounds at the California Speedway. Half will advance to the Oct. 8 starting line of the so-called Grand Challenge.
The grueling, weeklong semifinals are designed to test the vehicles' ability to cover a roughly 2-mile stretch of the track without a human driver or remote control.
Participants ranging from souped-up SUVs to military behemoths will be graded on how well they can self-drive on rough road, make sharp turns and avoid obstacles - hay bales, trash cans, wrecked cars - while relying on GPS navigation and sensors, radar, lasers and cameras that feed information to computers.
The robots also have to heed speed limits in certain zones and pass through a 100-foot-long tunnel designed to temporarily knock out their GPS capabilities.
"It looks like a piece of cake," Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor at Stanford University, said of the qualifying course that will challenge his team's entry, a converted Volkswagen Touareg dubbed Stanley.
The Grand Challenge is sponsored by the research arm of the Pentagon known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which is spending $9 million on this year's event.
The competition is part of the Pentagon's efforts to have a third of the military's ground vehicles unmanned by 2015 to fulfill a congressional mandate.
This year's race will cover about 150 miles of desert and mountainous terrain looping to and from Primm, Nev. While the exact route is kept secret until hours before the race, vehicles can expect to drive over rough desert roads, maneuver mountain trails and pass dry lake beds.
The first vehicle to traverse the entire course in less than 10 hours wins. If no one finishes - a possible outcome - DARPA may sponsor another competition.
Last year's inaugural race in the Mojave Desert ended without a winner when all the entrants broke down before the finish line. The best performer was a converted Humvee built by Carnegie Mellon University, which traveled only 7½ miles before having engine trouble.
DARPA officials and team leaders contend that this year's field is far more competitive. Some vehicles already have driven hundreds of continuous miles in the Southwest desert during practice runs, including several that tested on last year's race course.
The semifinalists, from more than a dozen U.S. states and Canada, were selected from a pool of about 200 entrants, which doubled from last year. They include a mix of computer programmers, mechanical engineers, college students, hot-rodders and off-road enthusiasts. Many teams are backed by corporate sponsors.
On the Net:
DARPA Grand Challenge official site: www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge
To view real-time results: www.grandchallenge.org