Meet the Godfather of autonomous cars

When historians write the story of the self-driving car, they'll start with a professor in Pittsburgh.

Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics Red Whittaker was at the heart of the early efforts to teach machines to drive on our roads. His work helped launch the autonomous vehicle industry, which is booming today.

Whittaker has other firsts on his resume, too: He was first to pass another vehicle and break the speed limit on a highway while riding in a self-driving car. Today, his former students play key roles in self-driving efforts for some of the world's biggest companies, including Ford, Google and Uber.

"There's a little of my DNA in a lot of the people and a lot of the cars [in the industry]," Whittaker, 69, told CNN Tech. "Self-driving is a not a bad dent in the world. Whatever it becomes, you can at least blame it on me."

For decades, Whittaker -- who grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania -- has tinkered with robots. During the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, he built a robot to help clean up the mess.

Five years later, Whittaker created a six-wheeled robot, Terragator, that could slowly drive itself around Carnegie Mellon's campus. It was made up of $50,000 in parts, including government surplus from the Apollo program. But the self-driving technology was primitive.

Terragator was programmed to identify things that were dark, straight and long, and follow them. That helped it to find and stay on roads. But one day, Terragator took a wrong turn, and tried to climb up an oak tree. Its trunk happened to be dark, straight and long.

His focus shifted to autonomous cars years later. Between 2004 and 2007, the U.S. Defense Department hosted a series of autonomous vehicle races. Whittaker's teams bested the competition in two of the three competitions.

One of the key contributors on Whittaker's teams was student, Chris Urmson.

After Carnegie Mellon's 2007 victory, the government moved on to funding other far out projects. Whittaker returned to campus. Urmson later joined Google's self-driving car project.

Whittaker said he's proud of how much advancement and interest there is in the technology. Before giving a speech in 2016 at an event, he glanced at his phone to check the news.

"One of the big six stories for the day was an autonomous car engineer departing Google," Whittaker recalled. "I'm looking out on my audience of esteemed people, who have changed jobs again and again in a lifetime, and I'm asking myself, "Why is there a headline about an engineer changing a job?"

It turns out the engineer was Urmson, now the CEO of Aurora Innovation -- a self-driving car startup that's building tech for Volkswagen and Hyundai. Meanwhile, another Whittaker protege, Bryan Salesky, is the CEO of Argo.AI, Ford's self-driving arm.

Autonomous vehicles -- and those who helped build them -- have come a long ways since the days Terragator climbed an oak tree on Carnegie Mellon's campus.

"Technology has to earn its place in the world and this one has," Whittaker said. "It fundamentally transforms how things move around our planet and beyond, and there's no going back."