The U.S. Defense Department as venture capitalist? Yep. It invests billions every year in wacky tech projects - and sometimes That R&D scores big.
Seth Cabe has his eyes on an unusually rich winner's cup: the first-ever DARPA Grand Challenge, worth a cool million bucks, winner-take-all. All Cabe has to do is put his vehicle first across the finish line near Las Vegas come March 13, 2004, and finish the journey within 10 hours.

There are just a few twists: For starters, he won't find out where the finish line is until two hours before the race. And - the biggie - nobody gets to steer. He can't even sit in the car.

This race stars "autonomous ground vehicles" - think drone cars and trucks operating on sophisticated software, sensors, and advanced robotics - and the benefactor is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a little-known group of military techies with a sense of style and $2.7 billion in annual seed money. Their simple mission: Spur radical innovation that translates into overwhelming battlefield domination. And if it takes a million dollars in cash to get bright minds thinking about unmanned vehicles that could help fight a future war, it's all money well spent.

At least, Cabe thinks so, and DARPA officials agree. They're considering staging Grand Challenge events focused on other tech topics in the future.

"We have autonomous air vehicles, but nobody has made a ground vehicle yet," says Cabe, a 23-year-old graduate of the cutting-edge Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a veteran solar-car racer. The thinking is, he says, "OK, let's bring it to the public, maybe get some people to think outside the box."

HERE, THERE, EVERYWHWERE