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A Triumph for New Orleans


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A year before the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, no one in the robotics world had heard of the Gray Insurance Company. And no one from Gray Insurance, including the company's lead software developer Paul Trepagnier, knew anything about robotics. "We were nobodies," Trepagnier says, so it wasn't surprising that NOVA's cameras weren't focused on them during the race. They are nobodies no longer. Against all odds, and in the wake of two devastating hurricanes, the Gray team finished close behind two robotics superpowers. Their "Kat-5" was one of only five vehicles from the starting lineup of 23 to even finish the course. As Trepagnier explains in the following interview, if it weren't for a "$2 million bug," they might have even won it all.

An impossible goal

NOVA: How did an insurance company from suburban New Orleans get involved in the Grand Challenge?

Trepagnier: Well, Eric and Michael Gray, two brothers who are owners of the company, are avid readers of Popular Science. There was an article in Popular Science about the first Grand Challenge and how they were having a second Grand Challenge. Eric read the article and left it on Michael's desk with it circled saying, "Are we crazy enough to do this?" Then Michael sent an e-mail out to a bunch of people asking, "Are we crazy enough to do this?" And apparently enough people said, "Yes."

So they took the next step, which was to do a little research to figure out what it would cost, the logistics behind it. They figured out, "Okay, this seems doable from a monetary and logistics standpoint." Then they approached me. My main job before the Grand Challenge was to develop software for our e-business site, to let our clients see their insurance data online. The Grays thought highly, I guess, of me, and they came to me to see if I could program it. And I said—and these are the famous last words that I'll never, ever be able to live down—I said, "No, it's impossible."

NOVA: That didn't stop them?

Trepagnier: No. They said, "Okay," and they kept moving along. So I saw that they were serious. Then DARPA had a conference out in California where they announced the 2005 Grand Challenge and the rules. I flew out there with them. And throughout the whole thing I kept thinking, "You know, it is doable. We can do this." So when we got back, I started working on it.

NOVA: Did the Gray brothers have any experience with robotics or computer science?

Trepagnier: No.

NOVA: None at all?

Trepagnier: No. Before meeting up with [team members from] Tulane, I was the most knowledgeable in computer science. I had a masters in computer science.

NOVA: Had you ever worked in robotics?

Trepagnier: No. No robotics, no artificial intelligence, nothing like that. I'm pretty much a business programmer. But I had the theoretical background in computer science. So I'd touched on a lot of the things that the Grand Challenge involves.

“Our main strategy was to keep it simple.”

NOVA: When you joined Gray Insurance five years ago, did you have any idea that you would end up part of a team building a driverless SUV?

Trepagnier: Absolutely not.

Playing catch-up

NOVA: The race was in early October 2005. When did your team really get up and running?

Trepagnier: I would say mid-March. We had decided to use a Ford Escape Hybrid, and I think we got number 30 off the assembly line. We sent it off to a company called EMC, Electronic Mobility Controls, to get it set up with a drive-by-wire system. [Such systems, which translate computer signals into vehicle operations, are commercially available and widely used by physically disabled drivers.] Then we got the vehicle back in mid-March.

NOVA: So you started late in the game. Did that put you at a disadvantage?

Trepagnier: Oh, of course. From mid-March, we had just six weeks to get ready for the site visit [when DARPA officials came to judge if the team was worthy of competing]. We had six weeks to get the vehicle fully autonomous and avoiding obstacles—an insane goal. Yet somehow—I mean, we didn't have the best site visit, but we were good enough to make it.

NOVA: Were you working day and night?

Trepagnier: The last week and a half, it was not quite nonstop, but it was close. In fact, we got our obstacle avoidance algorithms working at 3:00 a.m. the morning before the site visit.

NOVA: Is it true that you read up about video game programming to prepare?

Trepagnier: That was the first thing I did. When I came back from the California conference, I was still the only skilled programmer on the team. So I said, "Where am I going to find all this AI robotics and stuff like that?" I actually ended up going to Barnes & Noble and bought—I'm looking at the titles right now—I bought Programming Game AI By Example, Physics for Game Developers, AI Robotics. There's a couple more. I bought game program books because they're a great source for artificial intelligence algorithms, for pathfinding in particular.

NOVA: So these books had clues for how to program a robot to navigate through tough terrain?

Trepagnier: Yeah. For our DARPA site visit, we actually used a couple of algorithms that we got from the books. They got us past the site visit, at which point we threw most of that code away and said, "Okay, now we've got four months." Before, we had six weeks. "Let's step back and do this properly."

“We put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this car. We didn’t want to stop because of Katrina.”

NOVA: Most of your core development team was students from Tulane, right?

Trepagnier: Yes. And when Gray joined up with Tulane, I decided to apply there to get my Ph.D. in computer science. So it was myself, Jorge Nagel, who is getting his masters in mechanical engineering, Powell Kinney, an undergraduate in biomedical engineering, and Matt Dooner, a computer science undergraduate.

NOVA: It's a pretty young team.

Trepagnier: Yes.

NOVA: What was your strategy for designing the robot?

Trepagnier: It was very, very simple. Our main strategy was to keep it simple.

NOVA: You wrote in your application to DARPA, in your technical paper, that you planned to be "integrators rather than inventors." What did you mean?

Trepagnier: It meant that, whenever possible, if there was a solution already available in the commercial or academic sector, just grab that, write the code to glue it together with the rest of our components, and move on.

NOVA: What did you originally name the vehicle?

Trepagnier: Originally we called it GrayBot because we didn't really spend any time figuring it out.

NOVA: But the name evolved.

Trepagnier: Yes, well, Katrina hit. And that's when we named her Kat-5.

Surviving the storm

NOVA: In the days leading up to Katrina hitting New Orleans, did you think it was going to impact your plans for the race?

Trepagnier: We actually didn't think it was going to hit us. Here's the timeline for us: On Friday night, we were getting ready for a little mini race against ULL's [University of Louisiana, Lafayette] CajunBot. It was Michael's philosophy that the more competition you can have beforehand the better. So we were going to have a mini-competition on that Saturday in a gravel pit in Hammond, which is up north across the lake.

So Friday night we got up to Hammond after work at, like, 6:00, 7:00. True to form, we stayed up all night doing an all-night stress test, because we had never run the vehicle for 10 hours straight. We started a program to run the car in the middle of a field on an endless loop. And we just watched it run and run and run, and we had a good time and just watched it make circles.

Then, about 4:00 in the morning, we had the radio on. And all of a sudden we hear on the radio that Katrina now has jogged to the left, and it's coming straight for New Orleans, and they're likely going to call for an evacuation either Saturday or Sunday.

So that kind of changed things. I left and got back home around 6:00 that Saturday morning. Walked in the door and told my wife Jennifer that we were evacuating in four hours and promptly went to sleep. Woke up three hours later, packed everything in the car, and left. And we drove to Lake Charles, Louisiana with our son Taylor, who was about a year and a half old then, to ride out the storm. My wife was able to get a hotel room there.

But the technical paper for DARPA was due that Monday. So I'm sitting in a hotel in Lake Charles the morning Katrina hits trying to get the data off the server in New Orleans so that I can e-mail it to DARPA. I know that we're going to lose power in our main building any minute, so I'm dialed into my computer at work trying to get all the pictures and graphs and all the text that I've written before we lose power. I put it all together in my hotel room and e-mailed it from there.

NOVA: Where was the vehicle?

Trepagnier: The vehicle was in Hammond. We actually had a very strong structure, a Quonset hut up there. They parked the vehicle in the hut.

NOVA: Was Hammond hit?

Trepagnier: Hammond's north of the city. It got the winds and the rain, but not the flooding.

NOVA: So the vehicle was fine.

Trepagnier: Oh, the vehicle was fine. Everything was fine, at least in Hammond. They got power back, I think, about a week and a half, two weeks after the storm.

NOVA: In those horrible few days when the city was flooding, what were you and the other team members thinking about in terms of the race?

Trepagnier: We really weren't in communication. I was in Lake Charles until Tuesday. Our reservations were up on Tuesday because we thought it was just an evacuation. We'd evacuate for two days, drive back home. We've done it before. We did it during [hurricane] Ivan last year. We did it earlier this year—no big deal.

After two days, though, we didn't have a hotel room, so we drove to Shreveport to stay with one of my wife's friends. That's when I finally got in touch with Michael Gray, who was in Tennessee. He said The Gray Insurance Company was moving offices to Baton Rouge temporarily. So I had to go to Baton Rouge to help move servers to get the company back up and running.

“We lost about three to four weeks of time just because we were all scattered to the four winds.”

NOVA: Did it ever seem like you just couldn't move forward with the DARPA Challenge?

Trepagnier: Yes, it did. But when I got back to Baton Rouge and talked with Michael, he had talked with Matt and Jorge and Powell. Matt and Jorge were in Memphis. Powell was in Slidell. It looked like Tulane was going to be out, so they didn't have anywhere else to be. And they didn't want to stop working on it.

I felt the same way. I mean, we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this car. We didn't want to stop because of Katrina. And then Michael said that the three Tulane students could stay up in Hammond. He'd pay for all their food and lodging. And when I was finished getting the company servers and stuff up in Baton Rouge, then I could get back on it as well. He committed to spending what it took to make sure the project went forward.

At that point, though, it became really just the four of us working on it. Before then, I'd say over 50 percent of the team was the IT department at Gray. But they had to get the business functioning in Baton Rouge.

NOVA: How many people on your team lost their homes?

Trepagnier: About 75 percent of us either had our homes destroyed or had enough damage to keep us from living in our homes, which was my case.

NOVA: Where did you live?

Trepagnier: We ended up at four different places during the evacuation. We'd go stay somewhere three, four nights, and then it was like, "Okay, we're kind of in your hair." It was an awkward situation. Some of our friends who kept us were just amazing, though. I'll be indebted to them forever.

Eventually, I sent my wife and son to Austin to be with my sister and my parents, who had evacuated there. I moved to Hammond and just stayed there, worked 24/7 trying to get things done.

Katrina's impact

NOVA: How did the storm change your plans for the vehicle and the race?

Trepagnier: Well, we lost about three to four weeks of time just because we were all scattered to the four winds. We lost half our team, who had to do stuff for the company. We were working off generators. And for a while, we couldn't even go to stores to buy stuff because they were all closed. A lot of our lofty plans for how we were going to be the best just didn't make it.

NOVA: When did you rename the vehicle?

Trepagnier: I'm not sure. I just remember that DARPA sent us an e-mail asking if we were okay. And we said, "Yes, we're fine, but we're renaming our vehicle Kat-5."

NOVA: I doubt it was in honor of the storm.

Trepagnier: No. It was more an act of defiance: "You can mess with us, but you can't put us down. We're going to get back up again." It's also a pun, because while it's obviously after Katrina, which was a category 5, the whole car is actually wired with cat-5 cabling.

NOVA: Given that at the first DARPA Grand Challenge not a single vehicle made it more than seven or eight miles—

Trepagnier: 7.3.

NOVA: (laugh) 7.3 miles. How far did you think—

Trepagnier: We said 7.4. When we first got involved in this, we said 7.4 miles would make us all happy.

NOVA: You didn't think you would even make it to the finish line?

Trepagnier: Remember I said it was impossible at the beginning? No one will let me live that down, especially not Eric and Michael Gray. But honestly, especially after the NQE [the National Qualification Event, where the competitors for the final race were chosen], we were feeling, I don't want to say confident, but we were feeling like we had a chance. And then our chase vehicle driver, who worked for DARPA, came up to us the morning of the race and said that of all the teams, he felt that we had a very, very good chance of finishing. And we were, like, "Wow. He's been following all these cars during NQE and he thinks that we've got a good chance?" And then after 10, 20, 30 miles, we started going, "Hey, we're doing well!"

The $2 million bug

NOVA: The winner this year, the Stanford team, took nearly seven hours to finish the course. Kat-5 finished just 37 minutes behind that.

Trepagnier: Yes. Have you heard about our $2 million bug?

NOVA: No. What's that?

Trepagnier: Well, the director of DARPA said later that if we hadn't had a bug where we slowed down in the dry lakebeds, we would have either beaten Stanford or been very, very close to Stanford's car. The bug meant we went from 30 miles an hour to two miles an hour on all the dry lakebeds. We'd never tested in an area 100 feet wide like that. We call it the $2 million bug. Needless to say, it's been fixed.

NOVA: Wow. Despite the bug, were you happy with how you finished?

Trepagnier: Oh, of course. When our car crossed the finish line, we just went insane! And then it got even better when our chase car driver said that our elapsed time was going to be somewhere in the seven hour range—which meant we were in the same league as Stanford and CMU [Carnegie Mellon University]. For us, with no previous experience and only about five and a half months of development, to be in the same league as CMU, which is just a robotics powerhouse, and Stanford—they've got some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley, and they've also got Sebastian Thrun, who worked at CMU. We were just so ecstatic.

NOVA: What made your team successful?

Trepagnier: Well, there are a few things. One, while we didn't have the biggest budget, we at least had a decent budget [roughly $650,000]. We had a very small team of very competent people who trusted each other implicitly. That was so critical. I knew that if I asked Jorge to do something and he said, "Yes, I can take care of it," that it was going to get done to either my expectations or better than my expectations. And we all felt that way. A small team can do so much so fast. As soon as you start adding 10, 20 people, you've got a bureaucracy. You've got people going in different paths, and it's just not the same. Also, a lot of our skills and talents meshed really well with one another.

And after Katrina, we were on our own. We were an isolated group, and all we did, night and day, was work on the car. Most of the team slept in the same building as the car. I don't think we could ever achieve that again.

NOVA: After the race, The Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline "Amateur Team Defeats the Experts." The story was pretty complimentary, but how do you feel about being characterized as amateurs? Is that fair?

Trepagnier: Pretty much. I mean, I now know a lot more about robotics—I'm getting a doctorate in it. But at the time, we were amateurs. We really had no experts, true experts on anything related to autonomous vehicles. I don't think we're amateurs anymore. We had a really impressive trial by fire that's made us—I wouldn't quite call us experts, but, you know—

NOVA: Seasoned?

Trepagnier: Seasoned, yes, is a good word.

NOVA: What's next for the Gray team?

Trepagnier: It looks like there's going to be another Grand Challenge.

NOVA: I hadn't heard that.

Trepagnier: Well, they sent out questionnaires to all the teams that competed in 2005 asking our opinions on proposed formats and things like that. It's not definite, but all signs indicate there's going to be a Grand Challenge. Apparently they're very interested in dealing with moving obstacles in an urban environment.

We're looking forward to that, hoping that we get the chance to compete. We're confident that given a year, year and a half of lead time with our core team still intact, that we'll show the so-called experts that we're no longer amateurs. But then again, we'll also have a target painted on our backs. Everybody will be gunning for us because we won't be the underdogs anymore.

Back to top

On horizon

With Kat-5 on the horizon, heading toward the finish line, the team from New Orleans was ecstatic. "At this point," recalls Paul Trepagnier (at center, wearing cap), "our hearts started to beat incredibly fast."

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Grays and Dolly

Michael Gray (holding daughter Dolly) and brother Eric, two businessmen who turned robot racers after reading an article in Popular Science

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NQE computers

Inside the team's modified Ford Escape Hybrid, a computer nicknamed "Gray Matter" replaces the brain of a human driver.

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Fixing a bug

At DARPA's National Qualification Event, Jorge Nagel (left), Powell Kinney, and Paul Trepagnier work out a bug in their programming.

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Beer Bottle Pass

Kat-5, followed by DARPA's chase truck, rounds a hairpin turn on the Grand Challenge course.

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Finish line

KAT-5 finished the 132-mile race in 7 hours and 30 minutes, averaging 17.5 mph.

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Team at end

A dusty robot and a happy crew. From left, Paul Trepagnier, Powell Kinney, Jorge Nagel, and Matt Dooner (the core development team)

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The Great Robot Race
Meet the Teams

Meet the Teams
Watch video clips and learn more about the race's robots.

Cars That Drive Themselves

Cars That Drive Themselves
Stanford's Sebastian Thrun on real-world applications for robot vehicles

A Triumph for New Orleans

A Triumph
for New Orleans

How did one team survive Katrina and go on to almost win the Grand Challenge?

Video Extras

Video Extras
See a wild practice run, a motorcycle balancing itself, and more.

What Robots See

What Robots See
Look out through the "eyes" of computer-driven vehicles.



Interview conducted on March 20, 2005 and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online



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