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Boss Puts on a Show

Tartan Racing 'Quietly Confident' as Boss Performs for DARPA


Nearly 100 onlookers were standing by as the Chevy Tahoe reached 35 miles per hour, handling curves and stop signs with precision ... sans driver. Developed by Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing Team, the self-driving vehicle known as the Boss didn't miss a beat June 17 as it demonstrated its street smarts for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

"Today, we're quietly confident with what we have to do," said Carnegie Mellon Project Scientist Ben Grocholsky, as he kept a watchful eye on Boss making its way around the track. "It's impossible to foresee what might trip you up in the competition, so after today we'll focus on the details and the fine-tuning. But at this point, we've got a pretty solid core function."

One of 53 teams contending for a spot in DARPA's Urban Challenge, Tartan Racing was competing on this day for a spot among the 30 semi-finalists.

With siren wailing to signal that the vehicle was in "driverless" mode, Boss showed it could make successful stops as well as left-hand, right-hand and u-turns. Also, sensing another vehicle in front of it, Boss successfully went around the perceived obstacle and continued on its way.

While official results come in Aug. 9, it's hard to see how Boss could have performed any better.

Jim Nickolaou, an '05 Carnegie Mellon alumnus working in product development for General Motors (GM), stressed that what the crowd was seeing out on the test track was the result of an enormous team effort.

"It takes a lot of talented people to make this work," said Nickolaou, who helped select the car. "In this race, we're doing a lot of firsts."

In the short term, the experimental technology developed for the challenge could yield new devices that assist human drivers and improve highway safety. But Nickolaou had another idea as spectators were taking turns viewing the inside of the SUV.

"Now that I'm watching Chris Urmson put his kids in the car, I'm thinking this could be the first car that could drive kids to soccer practice without bothering mom or dad," Nickolaou said.

Urmson serves as director of technology for the project, which is being led by Carnegie Mellon Professor Red Whittaker. The day's trials are expected to land the team a spot in the Nov. 3 race with a top prize of  $2 million.

Corporate partners include GM, Caterpillar and Continental AG.

Caterpillar's Mike Taylor, an engineer whose work focuses on controls and perception — or the "eyes of the robot" — is pleased with having reached a new milestone after months of hard work.

"This makes the all-nighters worth it," said Taylor. And what's the team's next step?

"After today is a day off," he said. But within seconds the competitive edge resurfaced: "Or, at least half a day off."  

Related Links: Tartan Racing Team  |  Gallery  |  Robotics Institute

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