Taking a Ride in Carnegie Mellon's Driverless SUV

Race Day at Robot City

by Tom Imerito

It’s not often that a scientific trial exudes the festive tone of a carnival, but this one did.  On a scorching day in June, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing Team, assembled at Robot City on the former site of LTV Steel on the banks of the Monongahela.  Today, the team’s driverless SUV, named Boss, would undergo qualification testing by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for inclusion on the list of 36 elite competitors in this coming November’s $2 million Urban Challenge.  The Urban Challenge will be a simulated battlefield supply mission run at an urban military training facility in Victorville, California on November 3.

At the test track, a crowd milled about an open tent that served as both exhibition floor and refreshment stand. Outside the tent, Boss, a Chevy Tahoe adorned with an array of optic, laser, radar and satellite positioning antennae and sensors, and fitted with automated controls under the guidance of Intel II blades running 200,000 lines of software code, idled in the sun.

A skywriter inscribed the words “Go RED” across a brilliant blue horizon dabbed with occasional patches of cottony clouds.  “Red” referred to CMU professor, Red (William) Whittaker, the university’s main man in the field of autonomous and teleoperated field robotics, whose remote-controlled robotic system cleaned up Three Mile Island three decades ago and whose reputation as a thought-leader in the field of robotics spans the world today.

A team of DARPA judges was there to evaluate how well Boss would respond to a set of previously undisclosed computer instructions stored on a flash-memory-stick.  The instructions were designed to put the vehicle through its paces in typical urban road and traffic situations.

In a series of excursions, Boss made its way around the track with manned vehicles circulating to emulate normal street traffic.  It slowed and stopped for other cars, stopped and waited at stop signs, and proceeded when it had the right-of-way.  The only aberration in the otherwise flawless performance occurred during a stop-sign test when Boss appeared to make a left before its turn.  The apparent faux pas brought the trial to a halt, judges to the field, and head-scratching team members to the side of the vehicle as the aggregated group deliberated to determine the cause of the problem.  When the announcer proclaimed that the right of way had been Boss’s, because the car with the driver had been a few inches short of the official stop zone as defined by DARPA’s rulebook, an unspoken but palpable communal phew! filled the air.

At the end of one circuit, Boss made its way to the track’s dead end, executed a three-point turn with enviable adroitness then drove to the place where it had begun three or four laps earlier.  For one of the final tests, the judges parked a car at an intersection before a right-hand turn which required that Boss figure out if it could make the turn without hitting either the parked vehicle or oncoming traffic from around the bend.  After about thirty seconds of motionless cogitation, Boss pulled into the opposing left lane, made a wide turn around the parked car and sidled back into the right lane once it had safely completed the turn.

After the official festivities were over, demonstration rides were extended to the general public.  I was first in line.  I rode in the front seat with two other journalists riding in the back.  Everybody seemed comfortable.  As though to prove that he had no tricks up his sleeve, our safety escort sat back in the driver’s seat with his hands behind his head and feet planted flat on the floor.  At first, watching the steering wheel turn on its own and the accelerator and brake engage without the assistance of a foot gave me a minor case of the willies, but before our first lap was over, I was ready to surrender the thrill of driving forever.

On October 1, 2009, Carnegie Mellon’s “Boss” won the DARPA Urban Challenge!  I’m turning in my driver’s license.

This article first appeared in Tom Imerito’s TEQ column, Innovation

© Copyright 2007, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications