Computer scientist Madhur Behl has devoted eight years of his life to the study and construction of self-driving cars. So he jumped at the chance to participate in an autonomous vehicle competition at the Indianapolis circuit last summer.
“Motorsport racing has always been the testing ground for all types of automotive technology and many aspects of the safety of our utility vehicles – they all have their roots in racing,” he explains. “The very first race was because the automakers wanted to convince the general public that the automobile is a safe vehicle, that it will brake effectively and the engine will not blow up in your face.
So he and 11 students took the type of car you saw at the Indianapolis 500 and outfitted it with all the tech he needed to run on his own.
“These cars use very sophisticated sensors,” explains Behl. “We have six cameras that give us 360-degree awareness and three lidars. Lidars are those laser-based ranging sensors, and they produce millions of distance measurements every second, telling us exactly how far away each is. object of the car in all directions. And then we have the radar. We have very high precision GPS sensors.
Forty different teams entered the contest which offered a million dollar prize, but Behl says only nine made it to the final round.
“One of the teams has just hit the wall. Another team just came out because + it seemed like something was wrong with their GPS. I think we saw a couple of major crashes during the event. Some teams had a very disappointing day and struggled to get their cars on track for just one lap.
But the UVA car, painted in bright orange and blue, imposed itself brilliantly.
“We were able to run at an average speed of 120 miles per hour with a top speed of over 125 miles per hour, so very fast for a self-driving race car, but we couldn’t outdo our European friends, so that was a European Car that averaged about 136 miles an hour from the Technical University of Munich.
Still, he says, it was a great learning experience, and the performance of so many self-driving racing cars should help persuade the public that self-driving vehicles can be reliable for everyday use.
“No one is testing these vehicles at high speed or exploring their aggressiveness when it matters most,” says Behl. “The car is supposed to react very quickly, faster than a human.”
Behl is a big fan of other motorsport, and he is quick to say that autonomous racing will not replace traditional events like the Sebring 24 or the Indianapolis 500.
“At one point the crowd realizes that these drivers are literally putting their lives on the line, and that’s also what makes racing so exciting. Everyone is on the edge of their seat, which is why all motorsport is very driver-centric.
The autonomous race was like a time trial, with each car moving around the track and doing five laps on its own. UVA will have another chance to show off how fast, safe and responsive their vehicle is in the next round of competition, where the cars will actually race at the same time and likely pass each other.
Update: November 11, 2021 at 10:17 a.m. EST
Editor’s Note: The University of Virginia financially supports Radio IQ.