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Universities compete in new autonomous race

By Kevin Dennehy
GPS World Contributor

University teams will go head-to-head in a two-year autonomous race car competition to test new software and other self-driving technologies at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The competition, called the Indy Autonomous Challenge, culminates in a high-speed autonomous vehicle race, scheduled for Oct. 23, 2021, on the speedway’s famed 2.5-mile oval track that is home to the annual Indianapolis 500.

The competition was inspired by the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, which pitted university teams against each other and spurred commercial development of autonomous vehicles.

“The idea for the Indy Autonomous Challenge originated with DARPA’s winning team captain, [Stanford University’s] Sebastian Thrun. Sebastian joined us at the 2018 Indy 500, where he reflected on the inspiration and excitement that came from participating in the DARPA challenge, and how a high-speed automated vehicle race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had the potential to be on par with that experience with today’s teams,” said Matt Peak, Energy Systems Network director of mobility.

Like the DARPA competition, the Indy Autonomous Challenge focuses on university participation. “I can’t speak for DARPA, but our focus on universities is deliberate,” Peak said. “It was advised by not only Thrun, but other original DARPA competitors such as [Aurora CEO] Chris Urmson, all of whom commented on how participation by universities — their students, faculty, departments, alumni — was a key to DARPA’s success.”

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be the site of the race. (Photo: IMS)

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be the site of the race. (Photo: IMS)

The autonomous racing software developed through the competition could assist in developing commercial self-driving vehicles and enhance existing advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). Some of the cornerstone technologies include GNSS and digital maps, which provide the accurate location for fully autonomous vehicles.

As was the case with the original DARPA challenge, spurring new innovations and socially beneficial products and services is a goal of the competition, Peak said. “In our case, we see inspiring teams’ creation of software that can solve for edge cases — those problems or situations that occur only at an extreme operating parameter, such as avoiding unanticipated obstacles at high speeds while maintaining vehicular control,” he said. “This applies not only for highly automated vehicles, but also for vehicles equipped with ADAS that aim to help human drivers avoid obstacles altogether. The notion is, if our university innovators can enable cars to outmaneuver others at 200 mph, they certainly can help enable you to avoid that piece of lumber that fell off the pickup in front of you on the 65-mph highway.”

Peak said that a perfect place to demonstrate these technologies is the famous speedway, which for 100 years has tested automotive technology in a demanding environment. “Tackling automation at 200 mph in a race car is a bit more alluring than with a 20-mph people mover,” he said.

In addition to ESN and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, other challenge partners include race-car manufacturer Dallara Automobili and the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR).

$1.45 Million in Prize Money

During the final race at the speedway, teams will compete for $1 million as the first-place prize. Second- and third-place finishers receive $250,000 and $50,000, respectively.

The five-round competition starts with the submission of a white paper to demonstrate vehicle automation with a video of an existing vehicle or participation in Purdue University’s self-driving go-kart competition at the speedway.

During the initial rounds, teams will use sponsor ANSYS’ driving simulator to develop autonomous vehicle software. ANSYS, which will provide $150,000 in prizes to top finishers of a third-round race, will co-host a hackathon to let teams work with the simulator, the company said. The fourth round allows teams to test their vehicles at the speedway in advance of the final race.

So far, five universities have registered:

  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST)
  • Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI)
  • University of Florida
  • University of Illinois
  • University of Virginia.

Not Everyone Has Championed Autonomous Vehicles…

The new competition is commencing during a time when media reports show that the once-hot autonomous vehicle industry has vocal critics. Recently, Apple pioneer Steve Wozniak, who once headed a GPS-based fleet company called Wheels of Zeus, said he didn’t expect to see a fully autonomous vehicle operating on the streets in his lifetime.
In addition, a few automakers have reined in autonomous vehicle development or have scaled back their technology expectations in recent months.

“Not at all surprising. The traditional OEMs were never going to be disrupters that put driverless mobility-as-a-service cars out there. It isn’t their business model, and it won’t be,” said Alain Kornhauser, Princeton University professor and transportation program director, who was head of the university’s team during the DARPA Challenge, in his Smart Driving Cars weekly newsletter. “Self-driving, I dare say Level 2, is and has always been their sweet spot — it sells cars. Now watch these same companies throw monkey wrenches into those driverless mobility machines to protect their conventional business model.”

Peak says the recent negative press on autonomous vehicles is what happens when any new technology is rolled out. “For any new technology, such as automation, we’re going to see euphoric coverage (automation will solve all of our problems) and pessimistic coverage (automation will never arrive and, if it does, it will make things worse),” he said. “It’s a cycle, it swings back and forth, and we happen to be touching upon the latter, pessimistic end of that cycle.”

Taking a moderate and realistic position about the technology is what the Indy Autonomous Challenge is striving to do, Peak said. “Automated vehicle technologies have a role to play, both in helping humans drive better, and eventually in enabling new markets, such as first/last mile transit solutions. The technologies are light years ahead of where they were a decade ago, and low-level automated technologies are already making a difference and saving lives in today’s vehicles,” he said. “We have a bit of a ways to go before the full potential of automation will be realized, and the Indy Autonomous Challenge will help us address the concerns brought about by the media and others to reach this end goal much sooner than we otherwise would.”

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