RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Someday in the near future, that “Sunday driver” you honk your horn at just could be a robot if the wrap up of the DARPA “Urban Challenge” is a predictor of the future.

Six autonomously controlled vehicles out of 11 finalists completed a 55-mile road course on Saturday in the Pentagon-sponsored event at a former Air Force base in Victorville, Calif. The first-place team from Carnegie Mellon in University took home the first price of $2 million after navigating the twisting, turning marathon at a speed of some 14 miles per hour.

Teams from Stanford and Virginia Tech (“Victor Tango”) took second and third and received $1 million and $500,000 respectively.

Entries from North Carolina State (Insight Racing’s Lone Wolf Lotus sports car) and Georgia Tech failed to make the finals. But the Lone Wolf did complete the course.

While the various teams had fun in racing their “autobots” or “bots,” the reasoning behind the event as deadly serious. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is pressing hard to develop autonomous control technology that will enable U.S. military vehicles to operate in hostile environments without human crews.

Imagine how different the war in Iraq would be perceived today – and executed – if convoys could be operated without fear of losing human lives to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or land mines or other attacks.

As DARPA noted, the California road course “effectively simulated the type of terrain American forces operate in when deployed overseas.”

Vehicles had to operate entirely on their own robotic minds, obey California traffic laws, and move in and out of traffic in addition to avoiding obstacles.

The course was hardly easy as autobots crashed or performed dangerously.

“The vehicles had to think like human drivers and continually make split-second decisions to avoid moving vehicles, merge into traffic and safely pass through intersections,” DARPA noted.

“The urban setting added considerable complexity to the conditions faced by the vehicles, and was significantly more difficult than the fixed desert courses featured in the first two Grand Challenges,” said Urban Challenge Program Manager Norman Whitaker in a statement. “Tartan Racing, Stanford Racing, and Victor Tango all did a great job getting their vehicles to navigate the course quickly and safely despite the challenging conditions.”

As for what happens next, DARPA Director Tony Tether told the press that he expects private industry to build on what was learned from the Urban Challenge and two previous road course events.

"DARPA is an interesting organization," he told Wired news. "We really never finish anything. All we really do is show that it can be done. We take the technical excuse off the table, to the point where other people can no longer say ‘Hey this is a very interesting idea, but you know that you can’t do it.’ I think that we’re close to that point, that it’s time for this technology to [be furthered] by somebody else."