I say "large," but of course a few million bucks would be miniscule for a robotic car research program, and wouldn't even be a lot of money for grants.
This improvement in “autonomous vehicle technology”, as the jargon has it, is partly a result of prodding by America's defence department, which hopes a third of its ground vehicles will be robotic by 2015. To that end its research arm, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has scaled back the traditional process of handing out large research grants and getting nothing useful in return. Instead, it has been running a series of grand prix for such vehicles. The prix in the latest, due to take place on November 3rd, is $3.5m—of which $2m will go to the vehicle best able to negotiate its way round Victorville, a former air force base in southern California, with $1m and $500,000 to those in second and third places.
Competing are university research teams (some of which have big-name sponsors because of success in past years), amateur enthusiasts, and even a corporation or two.
I really like this idea. It seems to motivate (financially and psychologically) all the right people, and you only have to reward people who succeed. Obviously the money to fund the research has to be out there to begin with, and it will never be fully compensated, but it's great to be able to harness existing money and motivation this way.
Plus, the resulting competitions are really fun to hear about.