The Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) organizes races between university teams from around the world who program autonomous race cars, competing against each other on legendary racetracks and driving the commercialization of self-driving cars. We spoke with Paul Mitchell, President and CEO of the IAC, about the first race in 2022 and the role of the central computer provided by dSPACE.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge 2022 got off to a very successful start. What are your impressions after the training sessions and the first race in Texas?

We saw a lot of improvements in the hardware and software of the racecars. These have led to more durable vehicles with a much quicker start-up sequence. The vehicles feature more sensor options, such as six GNSS, which help the teams to perform better. The introduction of dSPACE AUTERA, the new on-board computer, offers more speed and capacity, allowing the most robust versions of the team’s software – called AI driver – to be run. As a result of improvements and training, the race cars can now perform more human driver like passing maneuvers on the racetrack. The actual race in Texas was challenging. We have never had such harsh weather conditions before: there was rain, it was nearly freezing. While this meant that not everything could be performed at max speed, it moreover proved that the installed hardware and software can operate under challenging conditions – thus proving to the industry that the installed hardware such as sensors and the in-vehicle computer are capable. We were also able to see algorithm improvements by the teams: for the first time an IAC race car behaved like a mature race car driver in a situation where a competing car violated the safety margins. Instead of a safety stop, it slowed down and avoided a crash. As a consequence, it came out first in the Texas event.

Can you briefly explain how you came up with the idea for the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) and how the race series has developed?

The concept was launched in 2018 with the objective of combining two areas of interest: autonomous technology and racing. The knowledge of racing is cumulated in Indiana. The idea to make it a prize competition came from the impact the DARPA challenge had.

How important are sponsors to the IAC?

We couldn’t operate the IAC without industry companies. But our sponsors turned out to be partners that contribute base components, like hardware and software, both on and off the car. All the technology we use such as sensors, wireless components, computers, and so forth is the same as what is used in the commercial vehicle industry. Thus, we provide a test bed and proofing ground for industry technology.

dSPACE is an on-vehicle computer technology partner of the IAC. How important is the central computer in the vehicles and has it proven itself in Texas?

The dSPACE AUTERA improved vehicle operations in critical ways: one is the durability of AUTERA to cope with the harsh conditions while traveling at almost 190 mph. And now we know it does that, even at freezing cold temperatures. Moreover, we had several crashes and AUTERA still operated even after significant accidents. We knew we needed a durable, robust computer and AUTERA exceeded the expectations. Additionally, it provides the flexibility to connect all the lidar, radar, and camera sensors, wireless communication, drive-by-wire systems, the six GNSS, and much, much more. With AUTERA, everything is connected centrally. And the teams are able to run their most sophisticated algorithms since we are pretty close to the power of a supercomputer – which is hard to find in a car.

What are the technical challenges that the student teams have to overcome?

Well, first of all, they need to run a race car at the ideal race line. Means, localization, and path planning are the challenges that make a difference in race performance. To win, they need to add human elements like crash avoidance while still being able to drive aggressively. Another aspect is to operate safely when something goes wrong like blown tires, lost GPS connection, loose wiring, etc. And we are proud of how they manage that since it proves the safety of autonomous driving to the public.

What is the level of industry interest in the IAC? And can the industry bene-fit from the findings?

IAC has terrific industry partners. And since IAC is a nonprofit organization, we are fortunate that we have partners who contribute technology and engineering support at no cost. For the industry, this pays off for several reasons. One is the learning that will improve the contributed product. Another element is the talent the industry has access to. In addition, these talents are trained on and trust certain products, which in turn benefits the industry. Marketing and promotion are, of course, important as well and they come with a lot of fun.

Since everyone has the same hardware platform, software is the key to winning. Do you see different approaches and strong competition in the student teams, or do the students exchange ideas with each other?

We see both: each team’s AI drivers are different, featuring individual driving styles for a good reason: to be better in order to win. All of our teams and all of our sponsors embrace collaboration. This means they all want to help each other solve problems and they all want to have the whole initiative to progress and move forward. We see this in teams sharing solutions for solved problems. For example, we discovered some GPS interferences. Different teams collaborated and shared data. By doing that, they were able to determine the source of the interferences – a jumbotron at the track. And a couple of teams are very supportive of the open-source approach. They are open to making base software available to others.

In the races today, there are two cars racing against each other, there is not too much traffic on the track. When will we see more than two cars on the track, or preferably all at the same time?

There are lots of different motor sports competitions. Think of drag racing – even with a barrier between the cars. With IAC, we try to demonstrate that technology can work in high-speed encounters. And we do that to promote commercial industry benefits. Our goal is not to resemble or replace Formula 1 or such. We need to understand what more cars would accomplish for the industry and evaluate the cost of the assets like the higher risk of collision damage/wreckages. We must remember that these are one million dollar cars. If this benefits industry in the future, then we can support it. For now, there are lots of different racing formats out there and ours is one of them.

Are cars actually getting faster and safer at the same rate every year? Is there much progress?

Absolutely. They are constantly exceeding the margins. However, the cars do have a top speed of 190 mph. But the safety is increasing dramatically. We see the cars operating better and better at these speeds.

The future of the car is electric. Are there plans to use electric drives at some point?

This would need a new vehicle chassis. And you have to consider parts and infrastructure. As more racing series and tracks go electric, then we could take advantage of these. But we do not have the size to develop drivetrains and infrastructures. For now, we are committed to the current race car platform. 

Many thanks for talking to us.


About the Interviewee:

Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell, President and CEO, Indy Autonomous Challenge

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