Then and Now: The 2,850-mile, no-hands road trip

In 1995, Dean Pomerleau (CS’92) and Todd Jochem (CS’93,’96) of CMU took an epic journey from Pittsburgh to San Diego.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 - by Jason Togyer

Courtesy Dean Pomerleau (CS’92) and Todd Jochem (CS’93,’96)

The great American road trip is a time-honored way to spend a summer vacation. During the last two weeks of July 1995, Dean Pomerleau (CS’92) and Todd Jochem (CS’93,’96) of CMU’s Robotics Institute packed their gear into a 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport minivan and took an epic, 2,850-mile journey from Pittsburgh to San Diego.

Along the way, they visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hoover Dam, checked out tourist traps such as “Prairie Dog Town,” and collected plastic Burger King figurines from the then-new Disney animated feature “Pocahontas.” In Los Angeles, they even met “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno.

But this was no typical summer joy ride. Their driver for more than 98 percent of the journey was a computer named the Rapidly Adapting Lateral Position Handler (or “RALPH” for short), and their minivan was Navlab 5—the latest in a series of autonomous vehicles that had been developed at CMU’s Robotics Institute since 1986.

These days, it seems like every major vehicle manufacturer is working on self-driving cars. So are Google and Uber. But in July 1995, Pomerleau and Jochem’s trip, which they called “No Hands Across America,” was, up until then, the longest continuous test for an autonomous vehicle in a real-world environment.

Jochem recently recalled their trip in an article for Robotics Trends. “Suffice it to say that we learned more on that seven-day trip than the entire research community may have learned in seven years,” he says. “We also had a ton of fun.”

Although Navlab 5 was reportedly sent to the crusher a few years ago, Jochem and Pomerleau’s trip journal remains online at www.cs.cmu.edu/~tjochem/nhaa/Journal.html, and is almost as interesting to read as the trip itself must have been, 20 years ago this summer.

Where were you in 1995? What do you remember about CMU—or, if you weren't at CMU in 1995, what was your personal "state-of-the-art" computing or robotics experience in 1995?

Email your story --- thoughtful, funny or somewhere in between --- to TheLink@cs.cmu.edu. We'll print the best answers in the next issue and one answer will receive a $25 gift certificate to the CMU University Store.

Deadline is Nov. 30.

For More Information, Contact:

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu