FONTANA — TerraHawk, a driverless robotic vehicle that doesn't look anything like its namesake, had barely lumbered out of the starting chute at the California Speedway when it suddenly jerked to a stop and began rocking from side to side.
"Oh no. That's not a good sign," Todd Mendenhall said as his six-wheel creation started to bellow and spew smoke. The Palos Verdes satellite engineer reluctantly gave the signal to have his vehicle shut down by remote.
Still, TerraHawk fared better than most. Vehicle after vehicle failed to get out of the starting gate because of computer glitches. Those that could get going turned the racetrack into a high-tech demolition derby as one after another veered off course and crashed into concrete barriers or other obstacles.
"It at least made it out of the chute," Mendenhall said of his caterpillar-like vehicle. "I'm happy with that."
TerraHawk is one of 21 vehicles trying to qualify for a highly unusual race Saturday. The object is to get a vehicle across 210 miles of rugged desert terrain from Barstow to Primm, Nev., in less than 10 hours -- without any human involvement, on board or remotely.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Robot race -- A photo caption in Thursday's Section A describing one of the entries in the Pentagon's "Grand Challenge" for driverless vehicles mistakenly referred to Team Enesco. It was Team Ensco.
The prize for winning: $1 million.
The "Grand Challenge" is being sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Its goal is to spur the development of robotic vehicles that can autonomously deliver supplies or roam dangerous areas scouting for enemy troops.
But now, after three days of trial runs, only four vehicles have been able to complete the 1 1/4-mile qualification course, which includes hairpin curves, 10-foot cattle gates and a minivan blocking the course. They have to do it twice to get into the race.
Competitors and Pentagon officials are wondering whether any vehicle will survive. The Pentagon is considering loosening qualification requirements and perhaps shortening the race.
"We're considering all possibilities," said Col. Jose Negron, the Pentagon's program manager for the race. Another possibility is holding the race again next year if no one finishes this year.
If any vehicle does complete the race, it will mark a significant public relations victory for the Pentagon and a major step forward in robotics research.
"It'll help accelerate technology in robotics, particularly those that can be used in the battlefield to help keep our soldiers out of harm's way," said Tom Strat, DARPA's deputy program manager for the event.
But for now, the vehicles -- all heavily modified and mounted with an assortment of radar, sonar and lasers -- could be mistaken for rejects from a "Star Wars" movie. They include the Ghost Rider, a $3,000 motorcycle; Cliff, a four-wheel-drive golf cart; Sandstorm, a Humvee with its roof cut off; and TerraMax, a 15-ton military truck painted neon green.
No wonder that the California Speedway, which usually holds NASCAR and Indy car races, seemed more like a BattleBot arena than a high-speed racetrack.
The TerraMax truck from Oshkosh, Wis., pushed a highway concrete barrier out of the way as it left the starting chute and slammed into a minivan, pushing it 5 feet before event organizers pressed the remote kill button -- a required feature on these machines. Another vehicle lost its global positioning signal and looked for it for 10 minutes, turning in circles, before it was shut down.
"It's disappointing," said George Chandler, a retired nuclear engineer who drove from San Diego to watch the action. "They've been working on robots for a long time, so you figure they could do better than this."
Part of the reason for the disheartening showing is that most of the competitors are underfunded garage tinkerers, junkyard warriors and robot fanatics. One team was made up of high school students, most of whom don't even drive.
On the first day of the qualifying runs, only two vehicles -- a modified Acura MDX sport-utility vehicle built by Palos Verdes High School students and a 1996 Chevy Tahoe SUV operated by a team from Caltech -- were able to leave the starting gate on their own. But both veered off course and crashed into concrete barriers before completing the course.
Six other vehicles had sat motionless at the chute, some for 30 minutes or more, as computer glitches kept them from driving off on their own. Each eventually returned to the garage, where team members worked to fix the problems.
"That's why its called the Grand Challenge," said Tom Laymon, a Honda executive who got the company to donate the $40,000 Acura to his son's high school, the only one in the competition. Only two of the 40 team members have a driver's license.