Stanford University, Volkswagen and a venture-capital firm are making a major effort to win the 2nd DARPA Challenge (a $2 million prize) by driving 175 miles across the desert in 10 hours — with no one in the driver’s seat.

“Why do people climb Mount Everest?” asked Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor in charge of making an unmanned SUV named Stanley run. “It’s the biggest robotic challenge there is.”

The first DARPA Grand Challenge, named for the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was held in early 2004. It was something of a bust, as some of the 15 teams couldn’t get going or didn’t go very far. The best team, from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, used a converted Hummer H1 and went only 7.4 miles on the 142-mile Barstow-to-Primm, Nev., course before getting stuck on a berm.

This year’s event, to be held Oct. 8 somewhere with “demanding desert terrain” in the Southwest, offers a $2 million prize. The Stanford Racing Team was one of 195 entrants, and one of 118 to pass the first hurdle and get a technology-confirming site visit from DARPA officials.

The purpose of the event is to further research into what the Department of Defense calls “autonomous ground vehicles that will help save American lives on the battlefield.” The rules are relatively simple: Vehicles must go on the ground, be 9 feet tall or less and weigh less than 20 tons.

More here.