A team of students from the University of Virginia (UVA) showcased the capabilities of its self-driving Indy car by roaring into the finals of a major international race held earlier this month in Las Vegas.
The car took second place only after it decided – on its own – to break the rules by preventing its final opponent from passing.
“It’s taken years of very meticulous preparation to get to this point,” said School of Engineering and Applied Science professor Madhur Behl, who leads the team of students. “It was a very tall order, and our backs were against the wall to arrive at the (Consumer Electronics Show), qualify for race day, and prove ourselves, all within a span of four days.”
According to their claims, the team’s efforts in developing a 150-mph autonomous racer at a renowned track like Las Vegas Motor Speedway are aimed at more than just speed. They believe that their project will lead to significant breakthroughs that will benefit the racing industry and enhance the safety of self-driving passenger cars. These advancements are particularly important as the autonomous vehicle industry grapples with ongoing challenges in recent times.
“Hopefully, all the research we are putting into this is going to pay off and kind of show that this new technology is not just a fluke,” John Chrosniak, who graduated in December with a master’s in computer science, said. “This is something that is going to be seen as reliable for the general public.”
The final race between Cavalier Autonomous Racing and TUM Autonomous Motorsport was intense, with the Cavalier team comprising about 30 students and the German team comprising 70 engineers. Despite being initially unseeded due to past poor showings, the Cavalier team made a stunning comeback by acing a series of qualifying challenges and earning the top seed heading into the finals.
The University of Virginia’s autonomous car was the fastest heading into the final test, giving them a shot at the championship for the first time in two years. However, despite having the fastest American autonomous car on the track in 2021, they couldn’t beat an international team’s speed. The team’s hopes were dashed in 2022 when their car crashed, and last year, mechanical issues and high-speed stability problems dealt another setback.
But this year, the car was humming, and save for a few glitches, the machine was primed for a dogfight in the finals. On one fateful lap, it was the German car’s turn to be the “attacker” to overtake the Cavalier machine as the speeds kept creeping up. But as the car from TUM pulled even, the Cavalier car refused to back down on its own, momentarily baffling the Wahoo team.
It turns out the Cavalier car sensed that it was close to banging into the German car and performed a high-speed evasive maneuver, goosing the throttle to stay safe. So, a win for the technology, but a disqualification in the race and a runner-up trophy. Although the car got disqualified and received a runner-up trophy in the race, it must have felt like a win for the team after two years of setbacks.
“They are able to operate calmly, analyze the data, trust the rigorous engineering process, and not get overwhelmed when something doesn’t work. They have the confidence to figure it out and do not hesitate to put in the effort. That’s the biggest lesson these students have learned,” Behl said.
In the coming months, the Cavalier race car will undergo upgrades to its sensors and drive-by-wire system before the team races in June at a Formula One track in Monza, Italy.