Tartans speed to a $2 million victory

At 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon, Carnegie Mellon’s autonomous Chevy Tahoe “Boss” won first place — and $2 million — in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. “Boss” is the product of innovations by the 49 members of Tartan Racing, led by robotics professor William “Red” Whittaker.

The Challenge is a high-stakes competition in which teams build a driverless car capable of traveling a 60-mile suburban mock-up course in which they complete tasks such as parking, U-turning, traversing a traffic circle, and assessing obstacles such as traffic signs, intersections, bicycles, traffic barrels, and other cars, all the while complying with California state traffic laws.

“The Urban Challenge is a very bold challenge. It might defy victory in the first or second competition,” Whittaker told The Tartan in 2006, when the university announced that it would compete. “But the only way to know that is to pursue it.”

And pursue it they did. In yesterday’s race, while Stanford University’s “Junior” was the first to cross the finish line at 1:45 p.m., teams were reminded that the first vehicle to cross the finish line may not be the winner, as points are deducted for traffic violations, and time subtracted for several halts by DARPA for safety and other unexplained issues. “Boss” began twenty to forty minutes after Junior but made up significant time over the course, eventually nabbing first prize. Stanford’s team took the $1 million second prize, and Victor Tango of Virginia Tech took third place and received $500,000.

The results of the Urban Challenge were similar to those of its predecessor, the DARPA Grand Challenge, in 2005. The Grand Challenge followed a similar format to the Urban Challenge, but on a course in the Mojave Desert. However, in the first year, none of the entries managed to traverse a fraction of the route over the desert course (Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle traveled the farthest). In the 2005 rematch, Stanford emerged in first place, while Carnegie Mellon’s twin entries claimed both second and third.

After the qualification event last week, only 11 teams of the 35 that entered qualified for the main event on Saturday. Tartan Racing was the first to pass, while several high-caliber teams like Caltech and Georgia Tech were stopped short for poor performance.

On race day, Carnegie Mellon had a poor start. A nearby jumbotron screen scrambled Boss’s GPS systems, which forced the team to replace its receiver on the spot and resulted in a late start. The rest of the vehicles left the starting point at 12 p.m. without major incident.

However, almost half of the teams were eliminated within two hours. Team Oshkosh’s gigantic military truck, a crowd favorite, stopped short of knocking out a building pillar, while others collided with obstacles and froze in confusion in the traffic circle. MIT’s entry touched bumpers with Cornell’s SUV in the afternoon. Both entries resumed driving shortly after their teams entered for a manual reset.

The collision rattled Tartan Racing a bit, as Cornell’s dark Chevy Tahoe bore aesthetic similarities to Boss; however, team members soon saw images of Boss moving along smoothly and completing its objectives. At this point, Virginia Tech’s Victor Tango was the first to complete every objective and seemed likely to nab first place. However, soon Stanford and then Carnegie Mellon pulled ahead.

Overall, six teams — Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Virginia Tech, MIT, Cornell, and Ben Franklin (composed of students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University) — crossed the finish line.

This event generated interest for military and automobile manufacturers alike — the U.S. military wishes to have one-third of its ground combat vehicles unmanned by 2015, while fully automatic cars promise a new future for the automobile industry.