Autonomous race car challenge spotlighted at annual CES

Teams will compete to win a race autonomously controlling a modified version of the Dallara IL-15 race car. (Courtesy Indy Autonomous Challenge)

By John Terhune
BU News Service

The organizers of the Indy Autonomous Challenge unveiled the self-driving racecar that will hit the track later this year, a first-of-its kind high-speed race car, powered by software designed to safely push it to victory. The announcement on Monday was made ahead of the official opening of CES, the giant consumer electronics show normally held in Las Vegas. The event will be virtual this year.

The competition, which was first announced in 2019, requires teams to develop software that will allow their autonomous racers to navigate 20 laps of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile track, according to rules posted on the competition’s website. The first car to cross the finish line on Oct. 23 will earn its team a $1 million prize.

Teams from 30 universities across 11 countries and 14 states are competing for the title. Each squad will use an identical car, a modified version of the Dallara IL-15 racecar used on the Indy Lights professional racing circuit.

Courtesy Indy Autonomous Challenge

Addressing a virtual audience from the Speedway, representatives from the legendary racetrack and Energy Systems Network explained why they partnered to create the global competition.

“The purpose of this facility was to test new technology,” said Doug Boles, president of the  Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though the venue is best known for hosting the Indianapolis 500 each May, Boles stressed its history of innovation, which includes everything from launching hot air balloon races to experimentation in tire technologies. “This is just another step in the vision that Carl Fisher had a hundred-plus years ago,” Boles said, referring to the entrepreneur who became a pioneer in auto racing.

Students and faculty from Clemson University have worked in conjunction with the competitors to outfit the cars with a broad range of sensors, cameras, radar, and GPS systems, according to Chris Paredis, the head of Clemson’s Deep Orange team. The competitors will design only the software that will steer the vehicles, which could reach speeds of around 180 mph.

The event was inspired by the Department of Defense-funded DARPA Grand Challenge, according to a press release. That race, held in 2004 and 2005, required self-driving vehicles to traverse a 150-mile course through the Mojave Desert.

Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford Professor who led his team to victory in the 2005 competition, said autonomous vehicles currently can’t come close to matching a human driver’s ability to handle extreme conditions. He expressed hope that the high-speed competition will spark revolutionary advancements in self-driving technology. 

“By going into a racing context, we will stretch self-driving cars to the absolute limit,” Thrun said in a press release.

Mark Miles, the President and CEO of Penske Entertainment, suggested at a Q&A session with the media that data from the race could bring a spark to IndyCar racing by revealing ways drivers could push their cars even faster without sacrificing safety.

However,  the organizers of the event mostly focused on how the competition could advance the world of autonomous driving outside the racetrack.

Paul Mitchell, the president and CEO of Energy Systems Network said a successful race could give consumers greater confidence in adopting self-driving cars.

Miles was optimistic that the universities fighting for the prize would produce a “groundbreaking step forward” that could improve public safety.

“If we can go 240 miles per hour and keep cars from colliding,” said Miles, “then surely we can make highway driving safer.”

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