The possible winners rely on corporate sponsors to help offset R&D

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's contest to create a self-driving vehicle that could be used in warfare situations first yielded enthusiasts and non-sponsored contestants.  The contest has evolved from the people working in their gage to  corporate sponsored universities investing large amounts of money into winning the DARPA competition.

The event has gone so mainstream that a sponsors-only section has been created for companies to display products and advertisements next to a designated pit stop area when the event starts at the former George Air Force Base on Nov. 3.

"They've become like NASCAR teams with multiple sponsors and stickers on everything," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who has followed the DARPA competitions. "It shows that it's becoming big business."

DARPA participants with sponsorship does not guarantee instant success, but teams are able to offset their costs faster and more efficiently with corporate backing.  After Stanford University's Volkswagen Touareg conquered the competition last year, the team was forced to turn down around six new sponsorship offers because they didn't have enough room for advertising on the vehicle.

still has a strong university flavor," said Sebastian Thrun, Stanford team leader and computer scientist.

The Pentagon hopes to have up to a third of all military ground vehicles unmanned by 2015.

This year's participants will have to navigate their cars through a course designed to mimic a city.  All cars must rely only on a computer brain and sensors to venture through the 60-mile course that has obstacles and obstructions.  Judges will evaluate how well each car drives in traffic, obeys traffic signs, maneuver in roundabouts and avoid traffic accidents with the environment.

DARPA will hand out prizes of $2 million, $1 million and $500,000 to the first three cars that are able to complete the course in less than six hours.  

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007
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