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Where They’re Going, They Won’t Need Roads

Perhaps you’ve heard of the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race run by autonomous robotic vehicles over a 131-mile course in the Mojave Desert. Last year, 15 vehicles started the race and, um, none finished. This year things went much better. Amazingly five vehicles finished the course in less than the required ten-hour time limit, the winner being a Volkswagen Touareg from Stanford nicknamed “Stanley.” Kudos to the team! (A good account of the race is here.)

In spite of the fact that this competition is all about building better weapons systems, I can’t help being fascinated by the technical challenges. Now, I’m going to go all Mac vs. PC on you for a second. I was mildly distraught to learn that on Stanley, “all processing takes place on seven Pentium M computers.” The OS isn’t actually mentioned, although I doubt it’s Windows. If it were, though, that might explain why they needed seven computers—six to run Windows and one to run the car. Just kidding!

I was rooting for Team Banzai whose Volkswagen Touareg “Dora” was running OS X. OS X is a natural fit for such an application. Often it seems to have a mind of its own, plunging fearlessly off into uncharted territory all by itself, and, um, it already has a Dashboard. At the very least, I hope OS X doesn’t get the blame for losing. (Team Banzai’s Touareg didn’t finish. Ouch.)

I thought it appropriate that the Touareg was such a popular choice. While gasoline flows through its veins the same as the first cars, its brain and nervous system are unquestionably up-to-the-minute digital. I was in a friend’s new Touareg not too long ago, and I was astonished at the dash, which was festooned with so much high-tech gimcrackery I was nearly blinded by the rainbow of readouts, gauges and indicators, and that was just on the radio. Much of the display is devoted to what we used to call “idiot lights,” and you’d really have to be an idiot to need some of these. How about tire pressure, for example. How did I live without knowing that? I guess it’s all in the name of safety, but seriously, there’s so much competition for your attention that it’s almost a safety hazard itself.

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