By Christina Koshzow

It is barely 40 degrees in the Mojave Desert, but William “Red” Whittaker is comfortably pointing at the horizon. “See that streetlight in the fading dusk?” the Robotics Institute professor asks, poetically directing a group of shivering reporters to an empty parking lot. “That’s where we’re really expected to outperform the competition.”

Properly layered in a white, long-sleeved polo and heavy Tartan Racing jacket, Whittaker decides to finish the press briefing inside. He guides the group into a giant white tent and pulls a laptop from behind a flap in the wall. When he opens the computer, the team leader cautiously moves a cup of coffee away from the keyboard.

Despite the bright lights, the atmosphere inside the tent is relaxed—so much, in fact, that it is hard to believe that Boss, Tartan Racing’s self-driving car, is less than an hour away from competing for a $2 million first prize. There are no frantic last-minute adjustments. When the sun begins to rise over an abandoned Air Force base in Victorville, Calif., Whittaker excuses himself and heads to the starting line.

Closer to the grandstand, Norman Whitaker (no relation to Red), program manager of the Urban Challenge, grows excited. “If anyone tells you they know what’s going to happen,” he says, “they’re lying. What you’re going to see today is truly the first time that we’ve taken robots, put them on the course with other robots, and watched them interact with one another.” After pausing, he offers a simpler explanation: “There are no midgets inside controlling these vehicles.”

Midgets, no. Sensors, yes. Heavily equipped with lasers, radars, and cameras, Boss has 10 computers and more than 200,000 lines of software behind the wheel. Unlike some entrants who chose to modify sports cars or hide their sensors for aesthetics, Tartan Racing’s Chevy Tahoe looks assertive and strong. Whittaker likes it that way.

As the spectators file into metal bleachers, the 11 robotic finalists line up side by side in chutes directly across from the stands. Because of its performance at the national qualifying event, Boss is seeded first, positioned closest to the JumboTron screen, where Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announces the rules: All vehicles have six hours to autonomously navigate a 60-mile course and perform a series of challenges such as negotiating intersections, avoiding obstacles, and merging with traffic. Because all robots must also “obey California driving rules,” both time and performance will be used to determine the winner. “If they’re rolling through stop signs,” says Tether, “they can finish fast, but they will not get the prize.” The robots, which will be timed individually, will enter the course minutes apart to reduce congestion, beginning with Boss.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Tether waves a green flag and shouts, “Start the bots!” The robots’ distinctive tracking sirens begin to blare, and the crowd, in excess of 3,000, begins stomping and shaking the bleachers.
But, for Boss, nothing happens.

The expressions in the stands from the Tartan Racing fans ride a wave of excitement, confusion, impatience, then panic, as one by one, the other 10 vehicles exit the chutes on time and cross the starting line.

Boss is still not moving.

Separated from the bleachers and yards away from the chutes, Whittaker distances himself behind the grandstand, hands folded at his chest. Behind the fence, a small group has gathered around him as he looks across the lot at Boss, its back open and still. Nearly half an hour after the scheduled start time, his team members continue to jog back and forth, gripping cables like organs.

If he chose to glance to his right, Whittaker would have noticed the nervous faces in the stands. But according to him, “if you get rattled, you don’t belong in this game.” Instead, he is “intrigued.”

The problem, it turns out, is with the signals. Despite logging tens of thousands of miles, Boss was never tested next to a 20-foot television—the radio frequency from the JumboTron was jamming Boss’s GPS. Ironically, Whittaker says, “winning the qualifiers was the kiss of death for the main event. We won that chute.”

This was not the first time things have gone wrong for Whittaker.

DARPA has sponsored two autonomous vehicle challenges in the past (though neither of those was robot on robot). Each one was called the Grand Challenge; the first competition, in 2004, featured 15 vehicles attempting to complete a 142-mile desert course for a $1 million cash prize. Although some of the robots moved—the Red Team got stuck on a bank and the front wheels melted—none of the vehicles finished, and the 2005 challenge was born.

In the 2005 Grand Challenge, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 132-mile desert route under the required 10-hour limit. According to Whittaker, his two entries were “clearly capable of burying any competition out on that course.” But, in the end, a problematic fuel line caused Highlander, the team’s frontrunner, to go “the distance but not the speed.”

Back then, Stanford University’s Stanley crossed the finish line first for the $2 million prize, and Carnegie Mellon’s two vehicles placed second and third. The winning team’s leader was Sebastian Thrun, Whittaker’s former colleague at Carnegie Mellon.

NOVA, television’s highest-rated science series, celebrated the event, he says, by making a “documentary that I can hardly stand to watch.”

Now, nearly two years later, when a reporter stops by to ask whether Boss can be fixed, Whittaker throws down his hands, half annoyed and half shocked by the doubt. “Oh! Geez,” he laughs. Almost instantaneously, he dismisses the question, as the voice behind his answer wanders off, “Yeah, sure, sure … sure.”

Shortly after, as if to prove his point, the JumboTron is shut down, and the announcer gets on the loudspeaker. Because Boss never crossed the starting line, it will not be penalized if it launches. Whittaker, with his arms back at his chest, preps the group of worried onlookers. “You can tell for sure when you see the lights and hear the signal, and five seconds later, it’ll blaze out of here.”

Almost on cue, two orange lights at the top of the Tahoe start flashing, and a siren pierces the air. Boss pulls out of the chute and stops. Then, in one swift movement, it turns left, drives up to the starting line, crosses it, and exits onto the course, all by itself.

In a rare moment of release, Whittaker’s hands shoot into the air, and his face flushes with excitement. Michele Gittleman, Tartan Racing’s no-nonsense project manager, tearfully calls her husband to share the news. From behind the crowd, someone shouts, “Red, you are the master of drama!”

With the race under way, Robert Bittner, Tartan Racing’s test lead, rides a space-age-looking Segway over to Test Lot A, an area coincidently called the Red Zone. He holds a team radio, much like a parent clutching a baby monitor, and the faint sounds of Boss’s tracking siren fade in and out like a lullaby. “I love hearing that sound get louder and softer, louder and softer,” he says. It means Boss is still alive.

Test Lot A is the same parking lot that Whittaker pointed to in the morning, except now, it’s not empty. Idling in the middle is the massive, lime-green, robotic truck called TerraMax. It’s “thinking.”

At this part of the course, the autonomous vehicles must enter the lot, park in a marked space, and then exit back onto the street. But for TerraMax, Oshkosh Truck Corporation’s entry (sponsored, in part, by Auburn University), it’s not happening. Finally, the only tactical cargo hauler in the competition starts moving again. Slowly. Right over a concrete island and toward a building on the edge of the lot.

The truck hits the structure’s cement pillar with a thud and stops. TerraMax is disqualified.

Back at the Tartan Racing tent, the atmosphere is upbeat. The team of 50, not including supporters and sponsors, doesn’t travel lightly. Amid tables and a buffet line, Tartan Racing fan Jim Rodriguez watches the event from a flat-screen TV at one end of the 1600-square-foot, NASCAR-style pit. Rodriguez (E’57) recently sat in on a CIT robotics class when he was back for Homecoming in order to brush up before the event. “Once you’re an engineer, you’re always an engineer,” he says. “It never gets out of your blood.”

The retired NASA engineer has seen many developments in his years, and he expects the next 20 to be no different. As one of the vehicles appears on television, he points to it. “All the gear you see there, that will all be down into the size of a pack of cigarettes,” he says. “The technology is here. It’s a question now of just the infrastructure and packaging it.”

Two tables away, as the commentary on the television turns to the first robot-on-robot crash between MIT’s Talos and Cornell’s Skynet, Whittaker sits down to lunch by himself, his back to the screen. Minutes later, a team member walks over to introduce his young son. Smiling, Whittaker sets aside his food and talks to the boy.

By early afternoon, the temperature in the desert has risen to a more comfortable 79 degrees, and a competition that began a year ago with more than 80 entrants has come down to six still alive on the course: Boss (Carnegie Mellon and General Motors’ Chevy Tahoe), Junior (Stanford’s Volkswagen Passat diesel), Little Ben (Penn and Lehigh’s Toyota Prius), Skynet (Cornell’s Chevy Tahoe), Talos (MIT’s Land Rover), and VictorTango (Virginia Tech and TORC Technologies’ Ford Escape hybrid).

As the robots near the completion of their mission, everyone makes their way to the grandstand to wait for the vehicles to cross the finish line. Stanford’s blue shirts fill the center of the stands, while a sea of red and white packs into the end closest to the finish line.

In the distance, there is a siren, but it isn’t Boss’s. The blue shirts, sensing victory, start cheering. As the siren grows louder, Stanford’s Junior comes into view. In a scene reminiscent of the 2005 Grand Challenge, Carnegie Mellon’s Boss crosses the line behind Junior.

The finish, though, may not be what it seems. Because Boss started the race more than 20 minutes after Junior, determining the winner will come down to the teams’ adjusted times and performances. The awards ceremony, where the winner will be revealed, is scheduled for the next morning.

Following the finish, the entire Tartan Racing team gathers inside the tent around Chris Urmson, their director of technology. This is his third DARPA challenge.

It is only 3:30 p.m., but the team has been up since before dawn. Urmson, his child in one arm, is excited. “Boss went out there tonight, or today, or whatever it was, and was just awesome!” he says. “It doesn’t matter what we find out tomorrow. We were amazing.”

Later that night, there is a 100-car pileup on Highway 99, just south of Fresno. For many of the Urban Challenge teams, this is exactly what they hope to prevent.

According to Whittaker, his motivations are three-fold: to build crashless cars, to “expand and extend” the driving experience, and to develop autonomous machines that work in the world. “Our real commitment is to the fulfillment of robotics—on the farm, in mining, in exploration,” he says. “Perhaps the wondrous new market out of this event could be automotive.”

DARPA’s main objective is to spur technology that will “keep warfighters off the battlefield and out of harm’s way,” but for Tether, the time of safer, self-driving cars is also an eventuality. “I don’t think we’re going to see it on the streets for a while, but you know what? We now have cars that park themselves,” he says. “It will happen.” GM spokesman, Scott Fosgard, agrees. He says the automaker expects driverless vehicle technology to be ready for testing by 2015 and in vehicles that it sells by 2018.

The next morning, “Red” is missing.

Shortly before the awards ceremony, DARPA officials were supposed to brief the team leaders on their decisions. But, so far, no one, Whittaker included, is around. There is no body language to read or comments to decode.

“I was expecting all the team leaders to be here and be like, ‘Look at Red. He’s either really, really happy or really, really pissed,’” says Tartan Racing team member Jason Ziglar.

Ziglar’s girlfriend and parents have traveled to California to watch the event. His father wears a hat that says “Jason’s Dad” on the back.

For Ziglar, the road to Victorville started at Duke University, where as part of his senior design project, he built radar software for Whittaker’s 2005 Grand Challenge entry. Not wanting to “leave the job undone,” he decided to go install it himself. By the time he was done, he applied and was accepted to the graduate robotics program at Carnegie Mellon.

When the robots and their teams line up in the chutes for the medal ceremony, the spectators anxiously rush to the bleachers and try to assign a greater meaning to their order. In the stands, a small girl sits with her younger brother. Together, they comment on the robots directly across from them as if they were sports heroes, pointing out the biggest (TerraMax) and their favorite (Boss).

Tether takes the stage to announce the top three winners. When he pulls out a giant cardboard $500,000 check and congratulates VictorTango on a third-place finish, the little boy claps.

“At least it’s not us,” he whispers.

When the second-place $1 million check goes to Stanford’s Junior, everyone cheers. Tartan Racing included.

For the fans, who figured the winner would be Junior or Boss, the announcement ends the suspense. But for the little boy, who is bouncing in his seat, it isn’t over yet. “Boss could win, Dad! Boss could win it!” he squeals.

Tether proceeds to rip the brown paper cover from the front of the oversized $2 million first-place check. Boss’s name is on it. Next to the check is a 100-pound eagle trophy. Next to the eagle is a 6’4” man.

Whittaker looks at the eagle, then points at Boss. “Bolt it right on the hood,” he jokes. Whittaker is not shy about explaining precisely why Boss is “hands down the best planning machine, the best perception machine, and unquestionably the best driver.” But, when it comes to all the people involved in the DARPA Urban Challenge, his words have a more humble tone.

“Robots sometimes stun the world, inspire a lot of people, and change the belief in what is possible. We just saw a few thousand people come together to have one of those magical days. Once it’s changed, it never goes back.”

Then, looking up at the sky, he says, “I’m going to the moon.” The Google Lunar X PRIZE, and its $30 million purse, is next.

Christina Koshzow (HS’02, HNZ’03) is a freelance writer, former editor in chief of College Prowler, and co-founder of Pittsburgh-based Branding Brand Communications.