At first glance, this didn’t seem like a very auspicious beginning for government-sponsored prizes in the modern era.

A $1 million race across a southern California desert by driverless robots ended Saturday after all 15 entries either broke down or withdrew, a race official said.

Two of the entries covered about seven miles (11 kilometers) of the roughly 150-mile (240-kilometer) course in the Mojave Desert while eight failed to make it to the one-mile (1500 meter) mark. Others crashed seconds after starting.

Color me confused. No, flabbergasted.

Were there some rules of which I’m not aware of in this contest? Like you couldn’t run the course, or some facsimile of it, ahead of time? You weren’t allowed to test your vehicle under actual course conditions?

I should start by saying that I’m not sure what the purpose of making it a real-time race was, unless they thought that this would generate more public excitement, or perhaps make it more challenging by having to deal with competitors as well as the course itself. If the goal is to get from Barstow to Vegas in a certain amount of time, then that’s the goal–why have everyone do it at the same time?

Why not do it like the X-Prize people, at least to start? Set a date that you’re going to make the attempt, have the judges show up to watch, and do the attempt. No need to have everyone go at once. Use graduated prizes–a million for the first, half a million for the second, a quarter million each for the next four. Once you’ve got some vehicles that can demonstrate their ability to do it, then you put them on the same course and actually have them race each other in real time.

But what amazes me is that, given that it was a real-time race (you had to beat not just the clock, but other competitors), wouldn’t you want to test and see if you could do it at all first, let alone in the allotted time period?

I mean, if I had a Formula I car, I don’t think I’d enter it in a race with other Formula I cars, or even with the pace car or a bicycle, until I’d at least seen if it could make it around the track once or twice. In fact, you know, I think that I’d drive the course the requisite number of times to win, and even see if I could at least approach some course records before I actually put it in competition.

Yet somehow, not a single one of these team’s vehicles were capable of making it five percent of the distance without some kind of breakdown. What’s up with that? Could it really be just an unfortunate set of circumstances, lousy luck all around?

Does anyone have an explanation?