Removing bumps on the path to fully automated driving

  • 07-Jun-2017 08:03 EDT
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Participants in the June 5-6 kickoff workshop for the AutoDrive Challenge pose with the competition’s platform vehicle, a Chevrolet Bolt, at SAE World Headquarters near Pittsburgh.

Without a properly educated engineering workforce, the road to automated vehicles could be a rocky one.

Helping take the bumps out is SAE International and General Motors with AutoDrive ChallengeTM, SAE's newest Collegiate Design Series competition now being rolled out. AutoDrive Challenge took a bold step forward this week at SAE’s Pittsburgh-area headquarters with its first workshop. About 65 participating students, faculty, SAE staff and corporate sponsors met to review Year 1 Competition Rules and discuss the basic technical and safety elements involved in retrofitting a conventional car for autonomous driving.

Earlier in 2017, eight teams were selected by RFP as AutoDrive Challenge participants: Kettering University, Michigan State University, Michigan Tech, North Carolina A&T University, Texas A&M University, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Virginia Tech.

AutoDrive Challenge is the first technology-specific competition joining the already successful engineering collegiate events Baja SAE and Formula SAE. The teams are challenged to integrate autonomous technology sensors and software into a Chevrolet Bolt donated by General Motors. Teams will achieve Level 4 autonomous driving per SAE International standard J3016.

AutoDrive Challenge consists of three annual on-site competitions of increasing complexity and difficulty, the first of which is scheduled for April 30 to May 4, 2018, in Yuma, Ariz., on GM’s desert proving grounds.

“At GM, we’re excited to be part of this competition and have SAE as a partner, because standards and education are what it’s all about,” said long-time SAE Member Mark Johnson, one of several GM representatives serving on the AutoDrive Challenge Steering Committee. Interviewed by SAE editors during a break at the workshop, he noted that in addition to giving each team its own platform vehicle, GM has assigned eight of its engineers to be mentors for the teams.

“We think that gives us really great insight into what the teams are doing, what they’re thinking about,” said Johnson, whose title at GM is Operational Excellence Champion for Global Product Integrity. “It’s natural communication pathway for questions and assistance. We get to see some of their great ideas and maybe help keep them away from some things that we’ve already tried [at GM] and that didn’t work out so well. Plus, it’s a great opportunity for us to find those really excited smart people on each team that might want to work for us someday.”

Said Al Wicks, faculty advisor for Virginia Tech’s AutoDrive Challenge team: “I think it’s important that we do workforce training” on autonomy and robotics. “This is what engineering is going to be about in the future.” A veteran faculty advisor in DARPA’s Urban Challenge and Grand Challenge—mid-2000s autonomous driving competitions—Wicks noted that half of the students applying for Virginia Tech graduate degrees in mechanical engineering are most interested in the specialty of autonomy and mechatronics.

“We’re trying to provide educational experiences that allow university students to engage in a workforce development experiences that propel them to come out of the experience several steps ahead of what they might achieve with a traditional degree in terms of their experience and knowledge about autonomy,” said Chris Ciuca, Director of Pre-Professional Programs at SAE.

The hands-on experience gained in integrating various technologies to create a functioning autonomous vehicle will prove invaluable to the student participants, Ciuca added: “These kids are going to come out light years ahead of where their counterparts are going to be when it comes time to engage in the professional workspace. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Briar Smith of the University of Waterloo is an AutoDrive student participant who envisions a career in the field of autonomous vehicles. By participating in the competition, studying mechatronics at U Waterloo “is no longer theoretical,” he said. “Now we have a practical component to it.”

Smith made special note of the benefits to society that autonomous driving brings. Improving efficiency and safety on roadways “is in the public interest,” the undergraduate said.

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