Auburn Makes History at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (August 2021)

War Eagle! Auburn’s Autonomous Tiger Racers have made history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway running the first ever autonomous laps with a Dallara-AV21 on the famed 2.5-mile oval. A track steeped in innovation history since 1911, the hallowed grounds of racing have been a proving ground for over a century, so it’s befitting that this achievement be forever in the record books at IMS.

According to Dr. David Bevly, founder and co-director of Auburn’s GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Lab (GAVLAB), “It was exciting to see Auburn’s software controlling the vehicle completely autonomous to make historic laps at IMS. As we followed in the chase vehicle, you could see the Auburn software at work driving the vehicle around the speedway. It was incredible to see how “quick” the car reacted compared to our chase vehicle.”

The team’s first impression of IMS was its size. “Everything is huge. Even just getting out to the pits takes forever.” Matt Boler commented. “Orders of magnitude larger than anything that we have done before. To watch the Dallara in its natural habitat and the way it responds to input immediately was amazing. When you tell it to go faster, it just takes off in such a calm and collected fashion. It clearly feels at home here at the Speedway.”

Auburn autonomous team
First test at IMS. Left to Right: Brendan Schretter, Will Bryan, Elizabeth Keefer, Matt Boler and Dr. David Bevly

“When we start to get to speeds in excess of 130 mph, then we are in uncharted territory.”

The teams stay in communication with the car to provide instruction of when to start, top speed, and when to enter the pits. Currently a chase vehicle is used to watch over the process as they turn laps, but soon the car will be on track alone. Top speeds were limited for the first outing as the team validated the track boundaries and their software. The next challenge will be building speed. According to Will Bryan, “When we start to get to speeds in excess of 130 mph, then we are in uncharted territory. How the sensors behave, the quality of the measurements, motion blur in the cameras and lidars – these are higher speeds than many of these sensors have ever been tested. Then layer in multi-vehicle detection and tracking at big speed… these are the major challenges in front of us.”

The Dallara AV-21 is based on the current INDYCAR Indy Lights chassis. Stefano DuPonti, CEO of Dallara USA, stated, “Dallara, as an engineering company, has always had a worldwide impact on innovation and technology. We know the importance of collaborations with Universities in continuing to support and grow innovation. Dallara is a proud partner and supporter of the Indy Autonomous Challenge to be held at the World Capital of Racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For the first time, the drivers at IMS will be the universities and their students, autonomously. We are pleased to learn about the recent Auburn University performance achievement at the track and while we congratulate the team, we look forward to seeing the results as other university teams meet the challenge.

First Autonomous Laps (July 2021)

Simulated race results are in! After qualifying second out of field of 16, Auburn’s Autonomous Tiger Racing #13 (who gave us that number??) started in the pole position for Heat Race #1. At the wave of the green flag, the car took off and gradually made the move for the optimum line heading into Turn 1. Unfortunately, there was another car that had moved into that position, resulting in some contact between the cars. This eliminated Auburn from the final race. Out of 16 teams only four finished the final race, several others also experiencing collisions or off-course adventures. After analyzing the race, it seems multiple cars, including Auburn’s, may not have been receiving sensor data from the simulator. It was disappointing that our team did not have the chance to fight it out for top position, but we were able to have some good practice races with other teams leading up to the sim race. 

The good news is that Auburn has never been coding specifically for the simulation race. They have stayed focused on real racing from the get-go and currently it’s paying off. 

Testing with the autonomous Dallara Indy Lights car has been underway since the week following the Indy 500 and Auburn, working alongside several other teams, has rid the chassis and the vehicle’s base software of many gremlins. This process is still ongoing, with a few issues still being resolved in the provided software and hardware. There is a reason why they call this a challenge. But according to Elizabeth Keefer, “everyone has been working really well together and we are enjoying getting to know our fellow competitors from around the world.” The key teams that have been engaged with Auburn are TUM (Technology University of Munich, Polimove (Politecnico di Milano), and KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology). 

Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, which is a small oval track a few miles up the road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the track for all the initial testing. These efforts have begun to pay off, when this past week, Auburn was able to “drive” the car via joystick and get it running with some consistency completing nearly 70 laps. Our team members Rob Williams, Will Bryan, and Brendan Schretter have all had a chance at the helm and everyone was pleased at the progress. 

The next huge step was to build a base software stack, so that the race car could drive itself around the oval. At this stage, the car relies primarily on GPS to follow a predetermined race line around the track. Team Members from Auburn wrote 100% of the autonomy code and today, July 7th, the Dallara AV-21 drove itself seven laps around the track at speeds over 50 mph. This makes Auburn the first team to complete autonomous laps during the Indy Autonomous Challenge!

Auburn autonomous team

“It is a proud moment for us, being the first team to drive the car autonomously. ”

Will Bryan commented, “This is really big news. Last week, we managed to do laps with a driver in a chase vehicle using a video game controller. But today, we have removed the driver and achieved baseline autonomy. It was a great feeling seeing the car drive itself on our code, and it was actually able to drive faster than we were comfortable going with the joystick. It is a proud moment for us, being the first team to drive the car autonomously. This also provides the foundation for all the remaining teams to build upon as we move towards October.” 

With so many improvements to the chassis, wiring harness, and computer hardware, ESN is now re-tooling the chassis and has begun producing cars for the individual teams. In the next few weeks, Auburn expects to receive their official car to begin the search for higher speeds…and of course to get our computer driver, “Aubie”, ready to compete in the Indy Autonomous Challenge on October 23rd. 

Post Indy 500 (June 2021)

 A journey that started in the fall of 2019 to compete in the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) has kicked into high gear as we finally made it to the World Capital of Speed, Indianapolis. All the teams were invited to see the 105th Running of the Indy 500. 

Our weekend started with “Carb Day”. Even though there is not a carburetor to be found in the famed gasoline alley, the tradition of the name still stands. It’s the final practice day for the 33 starters and with cool temperatures, we witness top speeds at 237mph. It was impressive! 

With suite tickets in hand, we had all- access passes to both the garage area and the pits. The amazing day started by meeting Indy 500 Winner Buddy Rice and IndyCar Driver Sage Karam in the Dryer & Reinbold garages. We spent time asking a ton of questions and getting a real look at the technology in INDYCAR today. Then two-time winner Al Unser, Jr. spent time with us in the suite. As we work to program our car, it’s interesting to hear drivers tell us what they are thinking heading into Turn 1 here at the Speedway. All the drivers had slightly different answers about car feel, entry points, and just what it means to race at Indy. 

Will Bryan, Team Leader commented, “Carb day was the first time our team got to see IndyCars running at IMS in person. Being there gave us a new appreciation of the speeds and the challenge ahead of us. Spending time in the garages, on pit lane, and chatting with drivers was a great experience. It was even better that we could share this time with some of our biggest supporters; Coach Harsin and his wife Kes along with Walt and Ginger Woltosz. I could tell they were enjoying it as much as us, and having them join us meant the world to our team.” 

After a rain delay, green flag flew for practice and we made our way to pit road to watch the crews in action. 

Our last stop of the day was to see, for the first time in person, the Dallara autonomous Indy Lights car that will make history in October. After a full day of watching IndyCars fly around the Speedway, we can’t wait to get started! 

Will Bryan, IndyCar Driver Sage Karem, Elizabeth Keefer, and Jake Ward in Gasoline Alley

Coach Bryan Harsin, a racer himself, hanging with team members Jake Ward, Brendan Schretter, Matt Boler and Will Bryan while practice is underway

Al Unser, Jr. with the Autonomous Tiger Racing team with Dave and Sara Bevly along with Walt and Ginger Woltosz

“There are no words to describe the exhilarating the first time it cranked up and drove!”

Over the balance of the race weekend, the IAC had organized a few events for all the teams to get to know each other in person. We spent time with our fellow competitors and for the record, we beat Hawaii in foosball, Ping-Pong and bowling. We’re off to a good start. 

On Tuesday, after watching the cars on track, listening to the drivers, we took our turn in the seat – the IndyCar Experience offers two-seater rides that run 185mph around the Speedway. This is the goal speed for our car, so to have the opportunity to feel the G’s and understand the line around the track was awesome. The only problem – the ride was way too short for all of us. 

According to Elizabeth Keefer “The two-seater ride was amazing! I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time and the forces the cars pulls in the corners are incredible!” 

With all the information infused over the last several days – it was time to start testing our own car! 

Clemson University’s Deep Orange program was charged with creating the autonomous Indy Lights car. This is a student driven program. Currently, the competition organizer, Energy System Network (ESN), has one completed car and the rest on the way. Our Auburn team was asked to lead the shake down tests on behalf of everyone in the competition. Other teams present for test days included: Hawaii, KAIST, MIT-PITT, Polimove, Purdue, IUPUI and UVA. 

Utilizing the handling paddock at nearby racetrack, Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis, we started at the beginning with vehicle start up procedures. Over the course of three days, among many things, we ran teleoperation tests, corrected brake pressure issues within the start up procedure, tested and calibrated all cameras, and recorded GPS data on the short oval. 

The start-up procedure that has been designed is a 15-minute process that includes the car automatically testing the steering wheel, pedals and brakes. As an example, the brake sensors make sure that the pressure holds steady and if it doesn’t, for safety reasons, shuts the car off. 

All in all, it was just great to get going with the actual car. All the cars will be ready within the next few weeks. Auburn will be receiving car #3. Ten teams are purchasing cars to compete in the final race, many of those teams are a combination of smaller teams. 

Stephanie Meyer summed it up, “Since we’ve gotten our hands on the vehicle and started interfacing and running it, things are starting to feel real! We’ve run into a few issues, but it has been great collaborating with the other teams to work through them. There are no words to describe the exhilarating the first time it cranked up and drove!” 

Only 4 months out from the race and only 36 days of on-track testing in front of us, the team will be spending a lot of time in Indy. 

Our thanks to Mark and Lori Olson who provided us with Carb Day Suite tickets and all the access to the garage and pits! You’ve have given us an appreciate for Indy living up to its name as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing!