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The PayPal Mafia of Self-Driving Cars Has Been at It a Decade

A Pentagon-funded contest spawned many of today’s self-driving startups. A decade later, the competitors are struggling to perfect the technology.
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Boss, a self-driving SUV from Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team, on display during the 10th anniversary celebrations of Tartan Racing's victory in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pa. 

Boss, a self-driving SUV from Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team, on display during the 10th anniversary celebrations of Tartan Racing's victory in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pa. 

Photographer: Stephanie Strasburg/Bloomberg

The brief history of the self-driving car is parked in Pittsburgh. Robotic vehicles built by students and professors stand sentry on the campus green at Carnegie Mellon University. These cars carry scars and dents—one shows rollover damage—from participation in a legendary series of competitions organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), a research and development wing of the U.S. military. Many of the engineers involved in those contests went on to launch autonomous vehicle startups that are now steering the future of transportation.

A few employees from Aurora Innovation Inc.—you could tell because they all wore Aurora t-shirts—arrived on a recent Saturday morning to pay homage to their autonomous ancestors. “It’s like looking at cell phones from the 1980s,” says Clint Liddick, 27, a software engineer at the company’s Pittsburgh office. “Now I see self-driving cars every single day, outside of my own work. My three-year-old son instantly recognizes them.”