Look Ma, No Driver!
A Look at the Long Beach Grand Prix
by Jason Bardis
April 20, 2008 may be known as
the turning point when robots
became better drivers than humans ...
or at least Lockheed Martin Advanced
Technology Labs engineer Adam
Solomon, when he took the wheel of
an unnamed robotic Toyota Prius after
its autonomous run and attempted to
guide it back into the pits at the 34th
Annual Long Beach Grand Prix.
Maybe the professional drivers at
the race would have fared better than
Adam. Then again, I’d bet dollars to
diodes that none of the professional
drivers had built any robot cars either,
so let’s call it even.
Robots? Engineers? Car race?
What? According to the event’s Fan
Guide brochure, “... we’re also going
‘Green, Green, Green!’ in 2008! The
Toyota Grand Prix will take a giant
leap into the future with an expanded
Lifestyle and Alternative Energy Expo
in the Convention Center and a
dynamic new ‘Green Power Prix-View,’
showcasing hybrid, electric, and
possibly even robotic cars on and off
the track, as well as energy-saving
devices for the home and lifestyle.”
“Green” is certainly a key buzz-word these days, around the world, in
all industries, and now “robotic” is
right up there alongside green too.
Well, it’s almost right up there alongside green — it still has the cautious
qualifier “possibly even” preceding it.
But what was this event really all
about? Three robotic cars took to the
track that day, all veterans of the DARPA
Urban Challenge (not just any old
competitors — race fans were treated
to the 1st, 2nd, and 4th place finishers
out of the 89 teams that entered and
11 teams that actually qualified). They
showed off by doing a hot lap of the
Long Beach Grand Prix race track.
Well, maybe it was more of a warm
lap ... okay, how about tepid?
Compared to the deafening blurs
of Champ Cars averaging 93 mph, the
30 mph max speed robotic cars
seemed rather tame and pokey at
best, at least to the average race fan.
At worst, the average race fan just
didn’t get it: “Those cars must be
driven by the people following in the
chase cars.” “No, the chase cars are
there just to shut them off in an
emergency — those cars are really
driving all by themselves.” “Yeah, I
know, but, still, there’s gotta be
somebody driving it!” “Uhhh ... ?”
This year’s Long Beach Grand Prix
included this resoundingly successful
“Robot drivers are
“Uh, that would be me.”
“We finished an
autonomous run and
we switched out of
manual drive, and ...
uh ... kinda kept going.
What we did was we
warmed up the rail on
the straightaway for the
rest of the drivers. So,
we know it’s good. We
tested it — it’s solid.”
SERVO 08.2008 49