Coming Soon—the Self Driving Car

Imagine a city with no crashes, no angry drivers, and even no traffic jams! You would never need to pay for parking, because you could send your car home after it drops you off! This is a city with only driverless cars. 

More than 20 teams came to the University of Arizona in April. They came to create and test software for the UofA’s CAT vehicle. CAT means Cognitive and Autonomous Test. Most of the teams were from the U.S., but there were two international teams—one team from Chile and the other from Switzerland. The teams were given the task of making the CAT vehicle navigate a road course without a driver behind the wheel. The teams used a programming language called ROS to run the car. ROS means Robotics Operating System, and is used for many autonomous projects. 

The teams were given three challenges to run in full autonomous mode. These were obstacle identification, velocity (speed) estimation, and world mapping. The teams had to create a program that can do all three tasks at once. The car uses cameras and sensors to “see” obstacles like traffic cones and people. The program must keep the car at a constant rate. The final challenge was to make a 3D map of the course using the data collected from the first two challenges.

The lab for this program is run by professor Jonathan Sprinkle. When asked why he started to research this area of technology, Sprinkle responded:

“I began research in self-driving cars because the platform is interesting and compelling—but more importantly, students believe it is interesting and compelling. It’s a data-rich environment in which homework and research can be applied, and in which people are eager to work. In addition, the lessons learned in how to do something safely for a car can be applied to safe programming of all kinds of technology that interact with humans in the future.”

Matt Bunting was a key person in running this event. He kept the programs, and the car running smoothly! Matt is second in command to Professor Sprinkle. He is a robotics guru, and is very interested in the idea of autonomous cars. One of his reasons for researching this field is the idea that one day you will be able to send your car home after it drops you off.

The CAT car is a Ford Escape hybrid. This car was chosen because it has enough room for the “drivers” and all the computers. The car was taken to a company named Torc. They specialize in converting vehicles for applications like this autonomous car. They add special computers and servos to allow fully-customizable control of a car. Three fail-safes were installed in case of a glitch in the system, or if someone walks in front of the car.

The car was funded by the National Science Foundation. The competition was sponsored by MathWorks. MathWorks is the creator of MATLAB and Simulink. MATLAB is a technical computing language. Simulink is a modeling and design simulator that is used by scientists around the world.

This competition proved that fully self-driving cars are not a thing of the future, they are already here!

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