The Elusive Dream of the Driverless Car

Deep in the Mojave Desert, 60 miles from the city of Barstow, is the Slash X Ranch Cafe, a former ranch where dirt bike riders and ATV adventurers can drink beer and eat burgers with fellow daredevils speeding across the desert. Displayed on a wall alongside trucker caps and taxidermy is a plaque that memorializes the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, a 142-mile race whose starting point was at Slash X Ranch Cafe.

It was the first race in the world without human drivers. Instead, it featured the fever-dream inventions — robotic motorcycles, monster Humvees — of a handful of software engineers who were hellbent on creating fully autonomous vehicles and winning the million-dollar prize offered by the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.