In Which I Attend a Robot Race

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Dawn is the coldest time in the Mojave Desert. Dawn is also really, really damn early. It was at dawn that I rolled into the Southern California Logistics Airport, a deactivated Air Force base in Victorville, Calif., an hour and a half east of L.A. This was the site of the DARPA Urban Challenge. Why did they start the damn thing at dawn? I guess robots don’t need sleep.

Briefly: the Urban Challenge is DARPA’s sort-of-annual race for autonomous robotic vehicles. This year the challenge was about navigating an urban environment: obeying traffic laws, parking, merging with traffic, and so on. Winner gets $2 million. Eleven teams had made it to the finals. They were waiting in the pit areas with their cars, shiny off-the-lot vehicles encrusted with lots of sensors — LIDAR and GPS and such — and with huge racks of servers in the back serving as their brains. These things aren’t remote-controlled: they drive around by themselves.

I donned a dorky safety vest and lined up with the techies to watch the start. The atmosphere was a lot like a bullfight: when these cars were activated — they were released onto the course four at a time — nobody seemed entirely sure what they would do. For the most part they just drove off down the street, slowly and a little jerkily and uncertainly in some cases, signalling politely as they entered the first turn. It’s quite creepy watching a car with an empty driver’s seat drive — there’s a strong odor of Christine about the whole business. (For the record, every car has a kill-switch so it can be shut down remotely.)

The buzz in the pits was all in favor of Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle, a modified Chevy Tahoe with a big GM logo on the side known as Boss. But Boss had a rocky start, some kind of GPS problem that had it stalled in the pits for a nervy 20 minutes while geeks rummaged around in the back. The culprit was probably interference from the other cars lined up behind Boss, though just in case they turned off the Jumbotron, too. Professor William Whittaker, the roboticist who heads the team, was fuming on the sidelines. I discovered this when I attempted to interview him. I don’t really blame him. It was stressful.

Once the cars were away, the whole event went weirdly quiet. The course was big enough that you couldn’t see anything from the grandstands, so most of the teams gravitated to a big tent where they could watch footage from the DARPA choppers that buzzed overhead. Jamie Hyneman, the guy with the beret from Mythbusters, provided color commentary. (Those are your tax dollars at work, folks.) The atmosphere was collegial. Everybody applauded when a car did something right.

I wandered around annoying hardworking techies who had better things to do than talk to me, then I walked out to the course area, which included a four-way stop sign intersection that seemed as good a place as any to hang out and wait for a crash. The air base was an eerie place — much of it was ruined, abandoned houses that looked like the aftermath of some cataclysmic zombie attack or other catastrophe. I never witnessed a crash, though I did watch as the Cornell car (another Tahoe) came to a total stop on a straightaway, unable for some reason to grok the complexities of its environment. Machine vision is a mysterious thing. You almost felt a little bad for the car — it was trying so hard! A couple of IT guys had to climb into it to get it going again, while Stanford’s car — a 2006 Passat named “Junior” — looked on coolly, waiting to get by.

Elsewhere, Team OshKosh, which fielded a truck so massive the course had to be widened to accommodate it, had a close encounter with a building. MIT’s Range Rover bumped into Cornell’s vehicle, a clip that will live forever on YouTube:

I had to leave before the end, to catch a flight, but in the end Carnegie Mellon carried the day, as expected, with Stanford and Virginia Tech close behind.

To sum up: the actual performance of the vehicles was pretty primitive, by enlightened human standards, but when you look back at previous years it’s actually evolving with frightening rapidity. At the first event, in 2004, nobody even finished. The idea of autonomous or minimally-manned robotic military convoys in 10 years doesn’t seem particularly implausible, and with the plague of roadside IED’s in Iraq, you can see why DARPA is plowing money into this. The car manufacturers want this stuff too: based on conversations with the competitors, they’re desperate for some kind of driver-assistance technology that will reduce traffic fatalities.

I can relate, Plus, if my rented Ford Mustang had been autonomous, I could have slept on the drive back to the airport.