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:

Buggy vs. buggy … or human vs. buggy

Although they have completed the course at least once in fully autonomous mode, Transistor and RoboQuasar aren’t racing this weekend. Instead, each will have an on-course exhibition Friday and Saturday.

RoboBuggy will show off Transistor around 8 this morning after the opening ceremony, and Atlas will do the same between races shortly before 10 a.m., team leaders said. Both teams will exhibit their buggies again Saturday morning.

Self-driving buggies have their advantages, said Vivaan Bahl, a junior and the software lead for team RoboBuggy: The buggy shell doesn’t have to fit a person. The driver’s weight distribution isn’t an issue. And while all-human teams have to wait until sunrise to practice (so the driver can see), the two self-driving teams don’t have that problem.

There are problems, too. The hardest parts of the course are areas with lots of trees and buildings, because that can mess with the GPS, he said. But, the biggest hurdle is that the self-driving buggies can’t see what’s around them, like other buggies’ drivers.

TL;DR: It’s not safe yet, said Ben Warwick, who created the Atlas team.

In addition to the inability to see other buggies, a few other rules would have to change to allow the self-driving buggies to compete.

“We break the rule that the driver has to be a registered student,” Bahl said with a laugh. But junior Danielle Quan, team chairman, pointed out that they named the software Alice.

Adding the ability for the buggies to see their surroundings is the next step before they can compete, teams said. That’s part of why Quan said she wants RoboBuggy to add a second active buggy so the two buggies can practice the course together. The goal is to add another buggy in the fall, she said.

The question would then become: Add an autonomous buggy league or have a human vs. robot buggy showdown?

“I think it’s up to the community,” Warwick said, adding that he thinks humans vs. robots “would be awesome.”

Members of both teams agreed that decision is still a few years away.

“But we’ve got our foot in the door,” Warwick said.

Like buggy, like self-driving car

Both Transistor and RoboQuasar have a similar appoarch using sensors and GPS to get the buggy from spot to spot, but the details and the software are different, Warwick explained.

Another big difference is where each team got their buggy.

As part of the CMU Robotics Club, the RoboBuggy team, which started about four years ago, built their buggy from scratch, making it just how they wanted. The team also has a retired buggy they don’t use.

Atlas started in Warwick’s room about two years ago and uses a retired buggy named formerly-named Quasar. Atlas later paired with CIA — Carnegie Involvement Association — to share tools and workspace.

The buggies also share similarities with the bigger self-driving vehicles navigating Pittsburgh’s streets, the teams said. RoboBuggy team alumni working in the field say the work on the buggy is relevant, and the problems are similar, Bahl and Quan said.

“The difference is cars have suspension, and we don’t,” Bahl said, adding that it can be hard to use certain sensors because the shell of the buggy vibrates.

Another big difference, Warwick said, is money. Those cars are $100,000 and every sensor is at least $10,000, he said.

But that’s not stopping these buggy teams. “We have the determination,” Warwick said.