Peculiar Pittsburgh

Of course you can see autonomous buggies during this weekend’s CMU Spring Carnival

They’re not in the races yet, but robots are one step closer to joining the fun.

MJ Slaby / The Incline
MJ Slaby

At first glance, Transistor and RoboQuasar don’t look much different from the buggies that have competed on CMU’s campus for decades.

Same three wheels, same sleek torpedo shape. But the space usually occupied by a small team member is filled with sensors and wires.

Yes. It’s a self-driving buggy.

Why not add autonomous carts to longtime Carnegie Mellon University spring tradition? The university is, after all, known for such work: decades of development on self-driving cars, artificial intelligence that beat professional poker players at Heads-Up No-Limit Texas Hold‘em, and a Socially Aware Robot Assistant, SARA, to name a few.

RoboBuggy and Atlas, the teams behind Transistor and RoboQuasar, respectively, aren’t the first to try out a robot buggy. Other students have for decades. But earlier this month, the two current teams did something no one else has — completed the buggy race course with the buggy in autonomous mode the whole time.

Still, Transistor and RoboQuasar aren’t ready for competition just yet.

How CMU Buggy works

CMU Buggy is part of the three-day Spring Carnival from Thursday to Saturday. Preliminary races are 8 a.m. to noon today, with finals from 9 to noon Saturday, per its website.

Also known as Sweepstakes, the CMU tradition is nearly 100 years old, per the university website. Started in 1920, the relay race goes up and down hills using a “buggy” as the baton. The buggy is a torpedo-shaped vehicle on three wheels with a large handle in the back.

When races are going uphill, team members designated as “pushers,” well, push the buggy. Downhill, a team member laying on their stomach inside the buggy, navigates turns at up to 40 miles per hour. (In the case of the two autonomous teams, the buggy steers and navigates itself.)

The course starts at the intersection of Margaret Morrison and Tech streets and creates a loop, finishing at the intersection of Tech and Frew streets. Want to go? Here’s where you should watch from.

This is what last year’s races looked like: