May 2, 2006 8:54 AM PDT

DARPA issues call for street-legal robot racers

The DARPA Grand Challenge has conquered the desert. Now it's ready to move downtown.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency plans to hold its third contest for robotic vehicles in November 2007, with a first prize set at $2 million. This would be the agency's first attempt at getting driverless vehicles to negotiate city streets.

The entrants will have to carry out a simulated military supply mission in a mock urban area. The vehicles will have to complete a 60-mile course in less than six hours, autonomously obeying traffic laws while merging into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, negotiating busy intersections and avoiding obstacles.

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"We believe the robotics community is ready to tackle vehicle operation inside city limits," DARPA Director Tony Tether said in a statement.

Last October, in a historic moment in both automotive and robotic history, Stanford University won the second Grand Challenge. The school's car, "Stanley," drove itself across 131.6 miles of the Mojave Desert in just less than seven hours. No contestants were able to finish the first race, in 2004.

At a conference in Reston, Va., set for May 20, DARPA plans to present a thorough introduction to the Urban Challenge, including schedule, rules and technical goals. Prizes in the contest will go to the top three finishers.

A location for the finals of the DARPA Urban Challenge has not yet been named. The agency did say that the semifinal National Qualification Event will be held in the western United States.

The U.S. government has mandated that one-third of its vehicles be autonomous by 2015.

CNET News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.

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