MORE

It Comes From the Garage

Photos by John AlbertChris Pederson and his sidekick, Gunnar Ristroph, are standing in a vast expanse of nothingness somewhere outside of Barstow, where the temperature is around 112. Any hotter and they might start breathing fire. But when you’re on government business, these are the risks. Behind them on a flatbed trailer is a robot designed to alter the future of national defense. Pederson, an erstwhile punk rock movie star who looks like a long-in-the-tooth surfer-dude-cum-mad-scientist, and Ristroph, a lanky Caltech student who hails from rural Texas, roll their creation onto the desert floor. The robot looks like a futuristic hot rod made for a Martian landscape — sleek metal chassis atop four big tires and two laser-scanner eyes. A single on/off switch with a label says, simply, “Brain.” They start the robot and use a remote control to navigate it onto a narrow dirt road. Ristroph, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a small laptop computer, stands off to the side typing communications to the idling machine.It takes off along the desert floor, kicking up a cloud of dirt as it reaches 20 mph. Then, it suddenly accelerates at the start of a turn and almost takes out an old wooden fence. The men hit the “kill” switch, and the robot powers down. After some tense discussion, Ristroph types some commands into his computer, and they start the robot again and place a standard orange road pylon directly in its path.Once again, the robot comes barreling down the dusty road. This time, when it hits the turn, the vehicle slows appropriately and makes it without a hitch, then reaccelerates into the straightaway. When it approaches the road pylon, it does something extraordinary: It slows and seems to hesitate momentarily as if actually thinking, and then it steers around the pylon before taking off down the road into the desert. Pederson and Ristroph smile. The rest of the day, the robot steers around various obstacles like it’s been driving itself all its life. Chris Pederson is a Los Angeles native. In the early ’80s, while he was standing outside a hall in Long Beach waiting to see the local band TSOL perform, director Penelope Spheeris, fresh off the success of her documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, approached him. She informed the 19-year-old that she was there to cast a movie, to which he responded, “Yeah, who cares?” Spheeris quickly hired him to be the lead in her follow-up punk-exploitation film, called Suburbia. “I had never done any acting before,” he says. “I had always thought about acting in a bad way, like — fuck that. But it was a hundred dollars a day. I thought I was rich.” Pederson would go on to play the wisecracking surfer in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but following a few more films of declining importance and an episode of Little House on the Prairie, his unintentional film career ended. So he began to race cars — mostly a ’76 Pontiac Firebird, which he modified continually in his garage. “What I liked about the whole thing was building a better mousetrap,” he explains. “You’re racing this car, and you start thinking what will make it go faster. Coming up with a strategy to make it the best it’s gonna be. That became the whole quest, and I learned a lot doing it.”After getting married and buying a home, Pederson found the financial strain of single-handedly maintaining a race car was too much. He retired the Firebird and started working at a friend’s small engineering firm doing technology development. While he says he enjoyed the work, there was still something missing. “I wanted freedom so I could just dream up crazy shit and build it. It’s a tangible thing — if you build something, you give it life.” Three years ago, in search of that elusive creative freedom, Pederson began searching the Internet for small-business incentive programs. What he found was an announcement for the first Grand Challenge race. The race was sponsored by a government organization called DARPA, which stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is the central research-and-development agency for the Department of Defense, which means it builds new weapons. A pleasant-sounding representative named Ron Kurjanowicz says the organization has “a pretty rich history of success, things such as the Internet, the Stealth Bomber, and unmanned airborne platforms like Global Hawk and Predator.” Now the agency has set its sights on what he refers to as “autonomous ground vehicles” — robot cars.Frustrated with the slow progress, Kurjanowicz says, DARPA decided to use the premise of the 1927 Ortiz Prize, which inspired Charles Lindbergh to build a craft that could fly across the Atlantic Ocean. “We have companies doing great research, but the progress is not as fast as one would want. The idea of the Grand Challenge is, let’s get some people to take some risks. If you can build an autonomous vehicle that has essentially two commands, start and stop, that can travel roughly a hundred miles across some rough roads and do it in the fastest time, then we’ll give you $2 million,” he says.Pederson signed up as soon as the entry forms were available. Most of the engineers from his former job wished him well, but had no intention of joining such an unorthodox venture. He eventually managed to recruit one friend, an industrial designer and hot-rod aficionado named Steve Piorek. Earlier that year, the two had entered the Echo Park Soap Box Derby and placed second. “I called Steve because he’s always up for an adventure,” Pederson says. “He was totally into it.” They named their small team the A.I. Motorvators.Next month, finalists will compete in the second Grand Challenge. None of the participants came even close to finishing the course in last year’s race. Still, the folks at DARPA were hopeful enough to give it another shot. “It’s hard to say that it wasn’t successful that first time, because everyone learned so much,” Kurjanowicz explains. “Now we have a good sense of what the problems really are, and there has been incredible progress. I think when it comes time for this race, we will have a long day on our hands.”While many of the other teams are from well-established companies and large universities such as Caltech and Cornell, Pederson’s crew has always just been some friends working out of a small garage — a difference they celebrate.“When we first built the robot, we called it It Came From the Garage because that part of it was so powerful to us,” Pederson says. The name stuck, and that’s how the robot is entered in the race. “The reason the garage was fundamental was that it’s a culture that’s a totally legitimate source of innovation. It’s do-it-yourself technology. It’s quintessentially American. Henry Ford began building his cars in a carriage house, which is just a garage. The reason they were the size they were was that’s how big they needed to be to fit out the fucking doors. The idea of the garage is a through line in American technology. The guy that invented the helicopter rotor system was in a garage. My neighbor is building a plane in his garage right now. Craig Breedlove built Spirit of America [the land-speed record holder] not very far from here.”It was this very garage aesthetic that attracted 21-year-old Gunnar Ristroph to A.I. Motorvators. Ristroph is also a former member of the well-funded Caltech Grand Challenge squad — a defector if you will. Growing up in Pinehurst, Texas, without much money, Ristroph says he and his seven siblings spent much of their free time simply inventing things. “We always had lawn mower engines and just general junk around the garage that we were fiddling with,” he says. “It was just kind of weekend entertainment. We didn’t have anything else to do, so we were always putting junk together and trying to make something. Homemade boats and strange vehicles, computers — that kind of thing.”Pederson and Ristroph initially met back when the Grand Challenge was first announced, and they separately attended a DARPA mixer down in Anaheim. A few days later, Ristroph visited Pederson in his garage, and the atmosphere felt strangely familiar. “I walked in and saw welders and plasma cutters and junk everywhere, and I thought, ‘This is great!’?” When school started, Ristroph felt compelled to join the Caltech team, but a year later he had his fill of the university’s bureaucratic chain of command. So, after recruiting a classmate named Hans Scholze, who hails from Kodiak, Alaska (and whom Ristroph describes with utter certainty as “a fucking genius — the best electronic engineer at Caltech, and all the electronic engineers know it”), Ristroph joined Pederson, Piorek and the A.I. Motorvator team.So far, they have done surprisingly well against the 118 teams entered into this year’s Challenge. Using a series of two-mile obstacle-course trials, judging for time and how cleanly vehicles navigate the course, DARPA narrowed the field down to 40 in July. The Motorvators made it through. On September 27, there will be a final trial to determine the 20 teams that will compete in the desert on October 8 for the $2 million in prize money.Though they are admittedly outgunned financially, Pederson says, what the Motorvators do have going for them is a willingness to actually head into the dirt and test their creation, instead of relying on computer simulations as do many of the bigger teams. Pederson and Ristroph both think It Came From the Garage has a decent chance of winning, as long as they can find the money to keep going. Pederson tells me he intends to start selling his shop equipment and perhaps even his car to further finance the endeavor. During the drive back to Los Angeles after the desert test run, the conversation turns to where all this will lead. Ristroph shares Pederson’s dislike for the corporate world and says how the previous summer he took a well-paying internship at Honeywell Corp. By the time the first-day orientation was over, he says, he felt sick to his stomach, and he left “because of the management and all the little cubicles.” Ristroph isn't sure what he'll do with his prestigious Caltech degree, once he earns it. “Hans and I are both in the same situation. We both come from very rural backgrounds, and we liked working on projects in the garage. That’s our background. We could go and get engineering jobs that would pay very well. But we want to stay in the garage because that’s where we’re productive. Working in the garage with these guys is where I feel like I’m doing something great.”Pederson then adds, “You know, it’s almost like you have to sidestep the consumer game and do something for no goddamned good reason but to do it, and then you really get somewhere interesting.”The next morning, Pederson and Ristroph call from the desert. They had driven all the way out again to brave the heat and test It Came From the Garage against Daggett Ridge, where the Motorvators nearly lost their creation when it slipped over the precipice. This time, it navigated the treacherous stretch perfectly, and, says Pederson, “It went faster than any of us could have imagined.”