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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.”(Continued …)