There are many exciting projects in combining the sport of racing with the technology and innovations of alternative fuel technology. One such project was conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development organization of the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA created the Grand Challenge to conduct a practical field test on ground vehicles. This test serves to accelerate research and development in autonomous ground vehicles while also providing an opportunity to help save lives on the battlefield.

The Grand Challenge vehicles are robotic vehicles. Therefore, if successful, the design could be further developed to give the United States Armed Forces a decisive edge. The competing teams navigated the vehicles through the difficult course using a variety of technology including vehicle-mounted laser sensors, GPS, radar, and cameras. The teams were tested on their ability to adapt to fast, real-time, ongoing computers.

The Grand Challenge 2004 was unable to name a winner because none of the teams were able to complete the difficult desert course. In fact, none of the teams were able to survive longer than 8 miles of the course. However, the Grand Challenge 2005, held on October 8, was much more successful. The Grand Challenge 2005 drew a large amount of attention with an estimated 4,000 in attendance. The teams, media, and spectators all attended the event, which was held approximately 45 minutes outside of Las Vegas.

Five teams completed the Grand Challenge 2005 course which stretched 131.6 miles over the Mojave Desert terrain. The Stanford Racing Team’s vehicle “Stanley” was awarded the $2 million prize after completing the course in 6 hours, 53 minutes. Stanley was constructed using a Volkswagen Toureg R5 TDI that has been modified to include full body skid plates and a reinforced front bumper. Stanley ran on a synthetic fuel that was derived from biomass, known as SunFuel. The biomass can be made from a variety of fast-growing crops. Organic waste, such as straw or wood waste, is also commonly used.

grand challenge

Photo courtesy of DARPA
Stanley crosses the finish line at the Grand Challenge 2005 in Las Vegas, Nevada, after completing the course in 6 hours and 53 minutes.

A 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid finished in fourth place overall. It completed the course in 7 hours and 30 minutes with an average speed of 17.5 mph.

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