INDIANAPOLIS — Never in his wildest dreams would Carl Fisher have envisioned the day the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would see a drone deliver the checkered flag to a robotic dog, who would wave it while driverless cars sped around the Racing Capital of the World at times more than 150 mph.
In Fisher’s day, rear-view mirrors were cutting-edge technology, IMS was paved entirely by bricks and the inaugural Indianapolis 500 winner averaged speeds just a tick under 75 mph over nearly seven hours. And yet, Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
They purchased over 300 acres to construct what would become the world’s most famous racetrack nearly 113 years ago in the hopes that IMS would be used for decades on end as the testing and proving ground for the latest automotive technology.
Saturday, IMS was the world’s stage for such a task. The Indy Autonomous Challenge – 21 universities from around the world, organized into nine teams – tested the feasibility and reliability of autonomous driving technology built into the bodies of Indy Lights cars.
Four months ago, robot cars could hardly maintain speeds of 30 mph while circling Lucas Oil Raceway – even with a chase car able to take some control of the racecar. Teams struggled to have one car stop in the proper spot in the pits and allow the next car to exit the pits in under 15 minutes. What had been billed in its introduction two years ago as a traditional race with a packed track, with cars hitting speeds nearing 200 mph over 20 laps to decide a winner, was seriously in danger of being a complete flop.
Saturday’s competition, which was reformatted into a challenge somewhat mirroring Day 1 of Indianapolis 500 qualifying, didn’t meet those original lofty standards, including four notable crashes out of the 11 total runs. But those involved came away largely satisfied in the level of technology that was put on display and what it may signal over the next decade of traditional road car development.
“There’s a long history of prize competitions setting goals that are meant to be impossible, just to see how close one might get to that goal,” said Paul Mitchell, the president and CEO of Energy Systems Network, an Indianapolis-based non-profit focused on the intersection of advanced energy technology and transportation. “Yes, it would be exciting to see even two cars on-track at the same time, and we have had them doing overtaking in practice, but we weren’t at a point where it was consistent enough to feel like the level of performance was on-par with what we wanted to showcase today at an event like this.”
How the Indy Autonomous Challenge came together
Unknown by much of the racing world, autonomous vehicle experts from around the globe met at IMS days ahead of the 2019 Indy 500, planting the seed for Saturday’s competition. By November of that year, the first of more than 40 universities began registering for a competition that would involve complications they couldn’t have imagined. The COVID-19 pandemic made teamwork in close quarters virtually impossible for some time. Teams communicated via online video platforms to discuss and begin building the sophisticated coding and algorithms that would eventually burn rubber Saturday at IMS.
Through pandemic and funding-related attrition, the field of participants was nearly cut in half. What Mitchell said several months ago was a planned field of 19 or 20 teams quickly turned into just 9. Three of those Saturday were made up of four or more universities, teaming up students going to school in different countries, and some in different continents.
Nearly 40 students from Clemson University’s department of automotive engineering partnered with Dallara and ESN to develop the car and the basis of the technology all nine teams would use. That tech included sensors monitoring chassis motion, the car’s suspension, tires and powertrain to make cars pull out of pitlane, build speed, brake, devise a driving line, avoid obstacles and gauge track conditions to decide just how close to the limits to push.
Then, after countless hours of testing simulations and fundraising, what Mitchell said was originally planned to be 20 or so days total of on-track practice days split between Lucas Oil Raceway and IMS quickly became nearly 50. Some teams of international students, Mitchell said, were forced into long-term stays in the U.S., made possible by staff from Indiana Sen. Todd Young’s office. Virtually all the competitors, Mitchell said, spent nearly every day of the last three months working intently on getting their cars and the technology that powered them to the proverbial finish line. Mechanics and engineers from Ricardo Juncos’ Juncos Hollinger Racing shop in Speedway worked with all the IAC teams to put their cars together.
In total, roughly $120 million was invested by sponsors to make Saturday’s competition possible. By Thursday, cars were still spinning frequently in IMS’ turns while running just above 135 mph and rain Friday wiped out a full day of much-needed practice. Saturday temperatures that hovered around 55 degrees – only a few degrees warmer than Firestone’s minimum for running traditional Indy cars; with frequent rain drops no less – left Mitchell legitimately uncertain of what the on-track product would be.
Just minutes before Boston Dynamics’ robot dog Spot waved the green flag and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb gave the command to “start your software and crank your engines,” practice speeds that only just topped 100 mph were being widely praised as a massive accomplishment.
“Indy 500 qualifying is incredible drama, when a driver and team is deciding where that line is and how close to the edge they can go without putting it in the wall,” said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp. “In a very real way, I think that’s what these computers are doing today.”
‘I was really impressed’
Saturday’s competition started out relatively smoothly, with the event’s two clear-cut favorites from practice speeds, PoliMOVE (made up of University of Alabama and Politecnico di Milano) and TUM Autonomous Motorsport (Technische Universitat Munchen) delivering two-lap average speeds of 124.450 mph and 129.237 mph, respectively. In what may have been the fastest speeds run in the first round Saturday, PoliMOVE was clocked above 151 mph on the straightaways during their initial run.
During the first round of competition, teams would leave pitlane and complete a warmup lap, two timed laps and a cooldown lap – the latter involved having to navigate around several inflatable barriers on the front-stretch to test cars’ ability to do more than just drive solo around a racetrack. Cars that completed those tasks then cycled back around, ran through pitlane and stopped would have their times considered for a ‘final three’ showdown.
Following those two strong starts from the European pair, hometown crew Black and Gold Autonomous Racing, which included students from Purdue and IUPUI along with West Point and a school in India and Colombia, failed to make it past pit-exit before their car crashed with a system malfunction deemed too serious to complete their allowed second try.
It began a run of teams struggling to compete. KAIST, a team from South Korea, completed a two-lap run of just 84.355 mph, followed by a group from the University of Virginia, whose car was clocked at 119.883 mph, but then ran an unexplained extra lap forcing judges to toss the time. The car of AI Racing Tech from Hawaii inadvertently took off into the infield before the entrance of oval Turn 1 and spun through the grass, followed two runs later by the car of MIT, University of Pittsburgh, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo suffering a failure while driving down the front-straight and making a hard-left turn into the inside wall.
Seeing all that carnage, a team from Auburn elected to not even make an official run after suffering multiple small run-ins with the wall during a Saturday morning warmup.
Ultimately, four teams completed official runs in the first round, paced by EuroRacing, made up of schools from Italy, Switzerland and Poland (131.148 mph).
And then, with a winner-take-all $1 million prize on the line, teams ratcheted up the potential speeds in their systems. First to go, PoliMOVE was clocked a more than 157 mph during its warmup laps before what the team believed to be a GPS malfunction caused it to brush the wall at the end of the front-straight before it ran straight-on into the Turn 1 wall. While running a more consistent program, TUM Autonomous Motorsport, a German team, registered a lap-1 average speed of 136.032 mph and a full run of 135.944 – nearly 5 mph faster than EuroRacing’s round 1 mark.
Even still, EuroRacing looked as if it was going to prevail with a blistering first lap of 139.009 mph that stunned Mitchell.
“After those spins we had Thursday around 138 mph in the turns, I wasn’t sure anyone would be able to go above that – especially in these conditions,” he said post-event. “The minute I saw (EuroRacing) turning 140-plus in the corners, I was really impressed.”
In the end, a relatively simple programming issue kept the Italian/Polish/Swiss team from kissing the bricks. It appears the car was set to slow after five laps instead of six, not accounting for the final round’s four warmup laps and two timed ones. Quickly after crossing the start-finish line looking as if they had the title in the bag, the team’s AV-21 slowed below 90 mph. Teammates looked at each other, exasperated.
“And that proves there’s no human interaction once these teams get the cars going,” Mitchell said. “Even if they’d noticed (the issue), they wouldn’t have been able to change anything.
“It all proves a robot driver can find the limits of a racecar on this track in these conditions. I think they would have gone over 150 or 160 mph today, no doubt, if the weather and tires could have been warmer without this slick of a track.”
Competition elevating community
The goal, Miles and Mitchell explained Saturday, is for an annual event at IMS. Miles even hinted it could be an on-track addition for IndyCar race weekends elsewhere on the calendar in the future. But the focus is by no means limited to the work and results displayed on the racetrack.
Just like when Harroun made first use of what we now call a rear-view mirror in his inaugural Indy 500 victory 110 years ago, cutting-edge automotive tech isn’t supposed to stay in the racing world. Throughout Saturday morning’s pre-event summit, tech company officers, university representatives and government officials (including Young, Holcomb and U.S. department of commerce deputy secretary Don Graves) continued to harken back on the early-2000s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Challenge and its tight parallels to Saturday.
Back in 2004, college teams similar to those that gathered at IMS Saturday were charged to craft driverless car technology to navigate a vehicle through desert terrain nearly 150 miles from Barstow, Calif. to Primm, Nevada. Despite a 10-hour time limit, none of the 15 entered vehicles made it the whole route – not even close. The car of the top-scoring team made it just 7.5 miles, and that event’s $1 million prize went unclaimed.
A year later, five of the 195 teams who took up a similar challenge in southern Nevada (this one 132 miles) finished – the fastest taking the checkered flag that day in 6 hours and 53 minutes. It served as the precursor to an urban challenge in 2007 where cars had to negotiate moving traffic and other obstacles, while aiming to obey California traffic laws.
Now, 14 years later, nearly every new car on the consumer market is equipped with an advanced driver assistance system (or ADAS) as simple as lane departure warning systems and as complicated as Tesla’s full-on autopilot mode. And given the exponential growth of today’s technology systems, Mitchell and others marveled at what the achievements of teams Saturday at IMS might possibly mean for consumer driver tech in another 14 years. As the Indy Autonomous Challenge showed, by no means is the present tech perfect, but it’s lightyears ahead of the first DARPA challenge.
“All the technology in these cars were already available,” said Andrea Pontremoli, the CEO of Dallara. “Maybe the difference is the fact that we now, because of this, have the algorithms to use that technology in an innovative way. Competition like this can enable a lot of people to think in a different way – even myself.
“Companies themselves would have said earlier that this was impossible, but the students didn’t know it was impossible, and they did it.”
Added Juncos: “As a driver, I know what’s on my mind and how challenging it is to drive a racecar and how many things you have to think about. So to see this was amazing. I’m not even really sure what we’re getting into.”