University of Waterloo students race a driverless car on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

October 25, 2021
University of Waterloo students race a driverless car on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway saw a different kind of race car take to the track this past weekend.

University of Waterloo students Brian Mao and Ben Zhang were part of a team that competed in the Indy Autonomous Challenge on Saturday for a $1 million U.S. top prize.

The challenge: to advance and push autonomous vehicle technology to the next level. 

“And what better way to do that than to push the limits and drive at speeds much faster than any regular car,” Mao told CBC News from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“That would force control design or path finder algorithms to be that much more robust, that much more accurate and that much more competitively efficient.”

Mao and Zhang teamed up with students from schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pittsburgh and the Rochester Institute of Technology. 

There were nine other teams from around the globe taking part in the race, each tasked with modifying a Dallara AV-21 race car.

This is the racecar University of Waterloo students Ben Zhang and Brian Mao helped build. All teams were given the same hardware for the cars, but had to create their own software to make them race. (Submitted by: Ben Zhang and Brian Mao/Indy Autonomous Challenge)

“We make minor tweaks on where to place the ethernet cables and what hardware we decide to use as the interface between the computer and the car,” explained Zhang, who is a master’s student in electrical and computer engineering.

“What distinguishes each team is the software stack that’s running behind the car, what algorithms are you using for each part that’s required to achieve a fully autonomous vehicle,” Mao added, who is a master’s student in applied mathematics.

Zhang said the driver’s seat was replaced with a computer system that is made up of different sensors and radars and cameras to allow the the vehicle to drive autonomously.

The price tag on Zhang’s and Mao’s team race car was about $1 million US, and it had the ability to top speeds of up to 200 km/h.

Brian Mao, front, talks with his teammates during a practice session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ahead of the Indy Autonomous Challenge. (Submitted by: Ben Zhang and Brian Mao/Indy Autonomous Challenge)

‘Feels amazing’

The competition was fierce, however. Zhang said other teams have dedicated research labs for this project and more time. But Zhang and Mao said a great asset to their team is the diversity of engineering, computer and mathematics background.

“We have all sorts of different ideas that could blend together,” Mao said. “The diversity is what distinguishes us.”

Mao and Zhang said after pouring many hours working and practicing with a simulator for this race, actually setting foot on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,”feels amazing.”

“Seeing the real thing, in person, is completely different. This arena is huge. The videos do not do it justice,” Mao said.

“It’s such a fulfilling experience seeing a physical car drive around in front of your own eyes rather than just a bunch of pixels on a simulation.”

Zhang said after the race wraps up on Saturday, he plans on taking a short break before he tackle other projects they have in the works. Mao said he is hoping to peruse a career in autonomous vehicles.

On Sunday, a team spokesperson told CBC News that the car was unable to finish the race due to a GPS issue that resulted in it crashing. 

The TUM Autonomous Motorsport from the Technical University of Munich won the challenge on Saturday and claimed the grand prize of one million dollars. 

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