No Drivers Wanted


By Anne Burke

Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM


The race started behind Buffalo Bill’s casino, just as daylight broke over the desert. The grandstands were packed. The favorites were Carnegie Mellon, back this year with two entries, a customized Hummer called H1ghlander and a red Humvee called Sandstorm, and Stanford’s Stanley, a Volkswagen Touareg, which enjoyed generous financial and technical help from Volkswagen of America.

Soatto and Frazzoli watched Golem 2 roll out of the gate from a berm behind the start line. She faltered momentarily, steering toward a concrete barrier. Soatto’s jaw tightened, then relaxed, as the truck found her bearings and rounded a curve, picking up speed along the way. Farther into the race, Golem 2 was driving like an aggressive teen-ager - hard on the pedal. On a straight shot along a dry lakebed, she clocked 47 mph, kicking up a cloud of dust so thick that Robinson had to let the chase vehicle drop back.

Then, at 22 miles, still moving at a fast clip, the truck did something that no one could have anticipated. She veered off-course and headed northwest into open desert. A wide-eyed Robinson followed about 25 feet behind, off to the side. Hearing, seated beside him, frantically flipped a “pause” switch that should have temporarily stopped Golem 2, but it had no effect.

After about a quarter mile, just as Hearing was about to flip the emergency-stop switch that would have put her out of the race, Golem 2 came to a dead halt. Robinson parked the chase vehicle and he, Hearing and Duckworth got out, eyeing the motionless robot warily. “I walked over and touched the tailpipe and there was no exhaust coming out, so we knew the engine had died,” Robinson said.

Golem 2 relied on a software program instead of
a human brain to know where to go. The blue
gadget is a motor driver that passed instructions
from the software to the steering wheel.

About 6 p.m., Golem 2, wearing a moustache of brush on her front grille, was towed back to the parking lot behind Buffalo Bill’s. Mason, Radford, Jones and the rest of the team circled round her, touching their fingers to her sides. Opening the hood, they could tell why she had come to a sudden stop: The battery case dislodged and knocked a fuse box loose. Jones unfastened the laptop from the front seat and carried it to Radford’s hotel room at the casino, where he combed through log files.

The problem was easy to spot. At mile 22, the computer ran out of memory and crashed. Controls remained fixed at “steering angle 2 degrees left” and “accelerate hard.” Because the software wasn’t running, the pause switch that Hearing was flipping didn’t work. The memory problem, which amounted to a tiny misallocation, “would have come out in testing if we had done a long, 200-mile run,” Mason remarked, but as it was, the team didn’t have time.

As fast as she was moving, Mason thinks Golem 2 was on course to beat Stanley, which won the race in 6 hours, 53 minutes and 8 seconds. Golem 2 finished 14th, ahead of Caltech’s Alice, which went berserk at 8 miles and crashed into a row of concrete barriers.


Soatto says the team has nothing to feel bad about. Stanford, CMU and some of the other DARPA competitors “have very, very well established robotics programs. We had to essentially create a robotics lab from scratch,” he says.

Jones had hoped for a finish in the top 5 but, all in all, he thinks the team should be proud. He’s working on his thesis now but expects he’ll change the topic to something more closely related to what he learned working on the Grand Challenge. “More than anything,” he says, “this has made me more focused.”

And after he gets his doctorate from UCLA? Jones thinks he’ll start a robotics company.