Inaugural Indy Autonomous Challenge to Bring 'Shock and Awe' to Brickyard

·11 min read
Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge
Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge
  • On October 23 and for the first time in Indianapolis 500 history, cars will race in a special 20-lap race minus drivers.

  • Autonomous vehicles are controlled by numerous computer systems, cameras and lidar (similar to radar) sensors.

  • Teams will program the cars to run laps around IMS using artificial intelligence.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the most legendary race track in the world, known for sheer speed and unadulterated horsepower.

Saturday, nearly a dozen modified Dallara II-15 Indy Lights chassis will take to the 2.5-mile oval and reach three-digit speeds in a special 20-lap race.But with one exception. Make that one MAJOR exception.

For the first time in IMS history, the cars will be missing one of the most vital components any type of motorsport event must have.

Namely, drivers.

That’s right, there will be no humans behind the wheel. In fact, none of the vehicles even have a driver’s seat, as IMS plays host to the first-ever Indy Autonomous Challenge, presented by Indianapolis-based non-profit Energy Systems Network (ESN). After nearly two years of development and testing, 10 teams made up of students from 21 universities and from nine different countries will match wits and technological expertise in The Challenge for a $1 million top prize.

Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge
Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge

“In many ways, (Saturday) is about showcasing the culmination of two years of work by dozens of universities that have been advancing the state of the art in software to pilot autonomous vehicles, and then validating that over a period of months in the real world with 60-plus days of track practices at (nearby) Lucas Oil Raceway and IMS,” ESN president/CEO Paul Mitchell told Autoweek. “What you're going to see is high speed, autonomous race cars circling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour. And that, in and of itself, is going to be both a record in the sense that no one's done it before, but also … (there is) this extra level of shock and awe that there's nobody driving the car.”

While the cars will look and feel like race cars, the technology being used will likely be seen much sooner on regular cars we drive on the streets. But at the same time, that’s not to say some of the technology on display Saturday won’t find its way into IndyCar, NASCAR stock cars and other motorsports vehicles sometime in the future.

“We are interested in it because of the city and state's benefits, because of the opportunity to remind people that this is a place where innovation has occurred historically, and maybe we'll learn something from this technology development which could be helpful and relevant to IndyCar drivers in the future,” said Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment, which owns IMS, the IndyCar Series and other entities.

But, Miles emphatically pointed out, no matter how far advanced the technology goes forward in coming years, one thing is for certain.

“This has nothing to do with taking drivers out of cars,” Miles said. “It's very easy for people to not understand or to not know how to juxtapose an autonomous racing vehicle being on the IMS track. On the one hand, it’s our absolute commitment to driving, drivers and cars.

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“So we're not talking about taking drivers out of cars. And we're not interested in some kind of ongoing autonomous racing. Again, every time I explain that, I'm careful to make sure people understand that that's a way to assist drivers. It's not to replace them.”

For the layman, autonomous vehicles are controlled by numerous computer systems, cameras and lidar (similar to radar) sensors. Teams will program the cars to run laps around IMS using artificial intelligence.

The Challenge will be more than just a race or test. Countless Indiana politicians and celebrities including Gov. Eric Holcomb, U.S. Senator Todd Young, Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett, as well as officials from major original equipment manufacturers, and over 400 high school students from across the state of Indiana will all be on hand to view the proceedings.

Parts of The Challenge, most notably the actual race itself, are open to the public. Tickets are $10 apiece, but must be purchased online by Friday. COVID-19 protocols will also be in place for spectators.

There are also a number of well-known advisors for the Challenge, including former race car driver Lyn St. James, MythBusters’ host Jamie Hyneman, SEMA vice president of technology John Waraniak, Google self-driving team founder Sebastian Thrun and several others.

Juncos Hollinger Racing, which competes in IndyCar, Indy Lights and Indy Pro 2000, is also heavily involved, providing assembly, service and maintenance of the vehicles.

The Challenge is only the second time such a large-scale event of its type has been held. Back in 2004, the forerunner of today’s autonomous vehicles – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge – was held in the California desert.

In a sense, this weekend’s Challenge is designed to take AI and autonomous vehicles to the next level, with race cars as the platform to be utilized. What makes things even more challenging for teams taking part is they only have one car to utilize; unlike IndyCar or NASCAR, teams cannot go to a back-up car if a mishap occurs.

Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge
Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge

“I think if we would have done it without a venue like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we might have gotten some universities participate, but we wouldn't have gotten 41 universities from 11 countries to answer that call,” Mitchell said. “There's something about the compelling idea of developing technology and showcasing it at the most prestigious venue in that industry in the motorsports industry. That's important.

“The level of technology, the kind of supercomputers, the 360-degree perception systems, the data that is coming off of these vehicles, and then the robust AI and machine learning algorithms that are making decisions on these vehicles is far beyond what you have in today's traditional motorsports app competitions. So there's a lot of interest because, frankly, some of this technology, it's not just about making a driverless car, or going around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it's about making commercial vehicles that we drive and perhaps vehicles that are in motorsports competitions, like Indy cars, safer at faster speeds.

“If you're going to get a future where IndyCar drivers can go 250 or 300 miles an hour, they may need some help from a 360-degree perception. Humans can only perceive things that they can see or sense, right? You don't have eyes in the back your head. How many times have racecar drivers said over the years, ‘Boy, I wish I had eyes in the back of my head?’ Well, our cars do that. They can see and perceive everything around them.”

Another reason for holding The Challenge is especially noteworthy in today’s world, particularly with the emphasis on reducing global carbon emissions and climate change. According to The Challenge organizers, “the efficiency gains of automation could reduce overall vehicular energy consumption by 60 percent.”

Another key element is potentially reducing deaths and injuries from crashes, particularly in the United States. “With 94 percent of the more than 40,000 annual automotive deaths in the U.S. caused by ‘human factors,’ advancements in vehicle automation have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives,” material from organizers states.

The one-day Challenge includes several symposiums and meetings prior to the main event, a 20-lap race, which will wrap up the day’s eight-plus hours of activities.

Granted, IMS is known for having some of the racing world’s most spectacular crashes over the years. Mitchell was asked how the teams will essentially keep their vehicles off IMS’s unforgiving walls.

Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge
Photo credit: Indy Autonomous Challenge

“Our approach to it really is not that different than the approach that that the IndyCar Series or Indy Lights Series takes in the sense that these cars really don't wreck all that differently,” Mitchell said. “If they go into the wall, they go into the wall.

“One thing I will say is we're not yet pushing 230 miles an hour like IndyCar. So you get a little bit of a benefit that if they get the wall at 100 mph, or even 120 mph, it's a little different than 230 mph.

“I mean, if you're not getting some level of accidents, you're not pushing the envelope of what's possible and the teams aren't progressing. Luckily, we haven't had a lot of these things happen, maybe less than a handful. And so on race day, we've got race control, first of all. If there's something that they're not seeing, that's not looking correct, if the cars starts wobbling in weird ways, the team can communicate with race control, they're seeing something. We basically have a red button, if you will, that we can press that will shut the vehicle down and bring it to what we call safety stop.

“The car's ability to follow race control commands, we tried to approach it very much similar to a race control interaction with a human driven vehicle. The nice thing is if there is an accident, there's really no risk of a human being injured, or certainly no risk of loss of life and those kinds of things.”

Holding The Challenge at this point in time is also important because several racing organizations are adapting various technological improvements in their own race vehicles. NASCAR will debut its state-of-the-art Generation 7 car next season. IndyCar debuts its “hybrid” race car in 2023. NHRA drag racing is also developing its own version of hybrid vehicles, particularly those that may someday operate solely on electric/battery power.

Miles has long had an interest in autonomous vehicles and potential application of that technology to motorsports. He was speaking at a symposium at Stanford University a couple of years ago when the idea of The Challenge came up. Miles quickly offered up IMS as the host facility and has been significantly involved in the planning of The Challenge.

“I love the idea because I really do relish the fact of history that Indianapolis Motor Speedway was founded and created to be a place where innovations could be developed,” Miles said. “It's not about me, but we've all been involved here and things which brought different sectors of the community together, not-for-profit, economic development, state/city to advance the economy of the region.”

While it’s unlikely The Challenge will become a yearly event at IMS, it will serve as a stepping-off point to potentially have additional smaller competitions either in the U.S. or globally as the development of technology and AI continues to evolve.

“First and foremost, we want to get through the 23rd and see what happens,” Mitchell said. “What I can say is that these are $1 million dollar-plus race cars, if you look at the amount of money that's invested in each one of them. And the teams have put two years into the development of their autonomous technology. So, I don't think it's a one-and-done type of thing. I don't think you run these vehicles one time at IMS, and then put them in a museum somewhere on the college campuses.

“I think there's a lot of desire from our teams, our sponsors, the industry, frankly, to find ways to showcase these vehicles into the future, whether that's in other venues, whether that's back at IMS. (It’s all) to be determined, but it's definitely something that we're going to put some thought to on October 24, the day after this competition.

“No one's really looking at, hey, let's do an autonomous racing series. That's not what we're looking to do coming out of this. It's about validating this technology in a motorsports platform, and perhaps transitioning it to human driven cars. Because, really, where some of these technologies are the most beneficial is when they're combined with human capabilities on top of robotic capabilities.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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