Carnegie Mellon's converted Chevy Tahoe won the race, and Whittaker's team accepted the $2 million. But Whittaker philosophically muses that "there was the prize money -- and then there was the larger prize. We proved the technology worked out on real streets and could comply with traffic laws and compete with real cars."
"We ignited the industry's interest," he says. "OEMs had to start asking, "How can we not participate in this technology?'"
Immediately, many companies saw it as a ground-floor opportunity. Race participants from that day became hot properties for computer tech companies and automakers that suddenly glimpsed a future of driverless cars. If a college professor knew how to make a sedan stop by itself to avoid an obstacle in the road, there were new fortunes to be made. If there were university computer science technicians who knew how to convert that behavior into computer code, they were valuable employees.
"A handful of companies immediately saw amazing potential in all this, and they began hiring everybody they could from academia," says one race participant who was recruited to help Internet giant Google get into the automated vehicle business and asks not to be identified. "But that's the great part of this story. An idea emerged from outside of the traditional auto industry, and companies like Google with their very fast-moving and creative culture got it. And as a result, the idea took flight far faster than it would have otherwise."
Google said as much itself three years later, in 2010, when the company revealed that it was planning to produce self-driving cars. A revealing blog post connected its work directly to DARPA.
"To develop this technology, we gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government," the public statement said. "Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the [Carnegie Mellon] team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world's first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside."
The Google blog was attributed to a "software engineer" named Sebastian Thrun. But the academic world knew Thrun was far more than a software engineer. A renowned researcher in computer learning, the German-born Thrun was recruited to Google soon after running Stanford's racing team for DARPA in 2007. His team's converted Volkswagen Passat named Junior came in second behind Whittaker's Chevy. Thrun's Stanford team also had developed Stanley, the DARPA 2005 winner.
Thrun stepped down to an advisory role at Google in 2014.