Fifteen Virginia Tech faculty, undergraduates, and graduate engineering students will travel to Yuma, Arizona with an autonomous vehicle they built for the first-ever AutoDrive Challenge Competition, happening April 30-May 5, 2018, and sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) and General Motors.

Virginia Tech is one of eight schools in the United States and Canada to be selected to compete.

This isn’t the first iteration of the team: 11 years ago, a Virginia Tech team called Victor Tango began working on autonomous vehicle technology and competed in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. The autonomous vehicle was one of three vehicles in the competition to successfully traverse across a 60-mile terrain through challenging obstacles. Virginia Tech began a partnership with Torc in 2005. Together, they have been improving autonomous vehicle technology since.

Building on what was started by Victor Tango, professors in the College of Engineering helped launch the Virginia Tech AutoDrive team in August 2017. Al Wicks, associate professor of mechanical engineering, along with several other faculty members, pitched the team to SAE.

Because of Virginia Tech’s previous success in the DARPA competitions, the team was selected to compete. This new team is composed of about 60 undergraduate students studying a wide range of disciplines — primarily engineering, computer science, and business.

Two students sit inside of the vehicle and work from a laptop.
Morgan Dykshorn (left), a senior studying computer engineering and lead of the perception sub-team, collaborates with Phil Repisky, a master's student studying mechanical engineering.

The competition is a three-year-long process. To make it through the first year, the AutoDrive team’s goal is to have their vehicle reach level two autonomy. This entails following lane lines, stopping at stop signs, and being able to dodge static objects.

Each year the competition progressively gets harder. The car will eventually have to carry out more complex tasks, such as moving at higher speeds, making U-turns, and dodging a dynamic object. The hope is that by 2020, the AutoDrive team will be able to produce a level four autonomous vehicle according to SAE standards.

Autonomous vehicles are at the forefront of technological innovation. Whether full autonomy — wherein a vehicle completely drives itself — will be reached anytime soon is still highly debated. Although there are positives and negatives to be argued for the implementation of autonomous vehicles, at the heart of these Virginia Tech students’ mission is to make the world safer to drive in.

“This is really cutting-edge work. Autonomous vehicles are the next big thing,” said Danial Mateen, of Ruckersville, Virginia, a sophomore studying business information technology and a member of the business subteam. “The theory is that autonomous vehicles can be safer than regular drivers. If you look at all the accidents that happen every single year and people look at that and say, ‘hey, there’s no standard to driving.’ But with autonomous vehicles, there could be a standard to driving, and it could be a lot safer.”

Two students tweak a small circular sensor on the top of a white car.
Kevin Benson, a junior studying mechanical engineering, and Dykshorn adjust the LIDAR sensor on the top of the Chevy Bolt.

These cars aren’t the only ones operating autonomously. The students have had to independently learn skills needed to build the vehicle, with mentorship from Wicks, in addition to staying on top of their schoolwork.

“We came into this project not knowing anything,” said Clayton Mattley, of Alexandria, Virginia, a senior studying mechanical engineering and member of both the business and the perception subteams. “There has been a lot of failure. I mean, the stuff we do doesn’t work the first time. Just being able to communicate with the vehicle took many hours … when we got that working, it was so amazing. And when we have everything working, it will be great.”

In order to make this project a reality, the AutoDrive team is composed of many subteams. The hardware subteam is responsible for installing hardware and running tests; the perception team is in charge of coding and object detection; and the simulation team is responsible for running simulations of the code on industry-level software.

“We want to develop from students into industry-level-ready engineers where companies will look at us and be like, ‘these students know what they’re doing,’ and take us on,” Mateen said.

Not only are these students working hard to prepare for their future careers, but they’re helping out their community in the process. The AutoDrive’s outreach subteam connected with students from Blacksburg High School to help them with their science fair project.

“[The high school students] wanted to learn more about autonomous vehicles and we essentially took them under our wing,” Mateen said. “That was kind of our initiative, to give back to our community and help out these students who wanted to learn more. ”

The high school students won second place overall in their division on a project involving high-definition cameras.

Even though no one in the world has yet been able to achieve level five out of the five levels of autonomy, the students of the Virginia Tech AutoDrive team are optimistic and enthusiastic about being a part of the progress.

“It is a possibility, but there are a lot of steps we will have to take as a society, in terms of laws and figuring out the economics of it — like how does insurance play a role in all of this — and so there is a long way to go, but it’s the beginning stage of the future, and we get to be apart of that,” Mateen said.

Mikael Kebede, of Westchester, New York, a  junior studying economics in the Pamplin College of Business and a member of the business subteam, agreed.

“We can say we were here,” Kebede said, “when this does become a normal type of thing.”

Written by Stephanie Kapllani

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