Texas A&M engineering AutoDrive challenge team takes second overall in first competition milestone

May 18, 2018
| By: Robert (Chris) Scoggins

More than 40 engineering students from the Texas A&M University College of Engineering shifted into high gear the week of April 30 to May 5, placing second overall in the first competition milestone of the General Motors and Society for Automotive Engineers’ AutoDrive challenge in Yuma, Arizona. Comprised of eight universities across North America, the competition is a three-year event that challenges university teams to develop and demonstrate the capabilities of an autonomous vehicle.

The Texas A&M engineering team, known as “The 12th Unmanned,” participated in four events, including a stop sign challenge, a lateral driving challenge, an obstacle avoidance course and a graded technical report presentation. Each event tested the car’s autonomous driving ability and the team’s technical competence in a different way.

Autodrive1The stop sign challenge required the car to maneuver on a straight three-lane road and successfully detect and stop for a series of stop signs, a challenge in which the team reached a top speed of 20 mph before stopping, the fastest in the competition. During the lateral driving challenge, the vehicle was tested on its ability to drive down a curved road and make sharp turns while staying within the same lane.

The team also achieved the fastest performance time on the obstacle avoidance course where the car had to drive down a three-lane road covered with obstacles while successfully detecting and avoiding them. The team credits their high overall placement at this year’s competition to their performance in the technical driving challenges.

“I’m incredibly proud of my students,” said Dr. Alireza Talebpour, assistant professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M and the faculty project lead for the competition. “We had students that were spending day and night working on this car and the team’s success is a testament to their amazing work ethic.”

In the coming year, the team will focus on expanding the strong technical foundation they built this year. Each year the end of spring driving challenges will grow more complex, culminating in a fully autonomous vehicle field test at the end of the three-year competition. The team won’t know the upcoming challenges for spring 2019 until later this summer, but they already have ideas on how they plan to move forward.

“For this coming year the team will definitely have to add in radars to account for the complexity of the more complicated driving events,” said Alex Greene, former electrical engineering student and the former AutoDrive challenge team captain.  “The team will eventually be put in a more urban scenario with moving obstacles to simulate things like pedestrians.”

Autodrive2The team also had many of its senior students, such as Greene, graduate in May. They will need to fill in the ranks of the team with new talent and a diverse multidisciplinary group of young engineers. Students that participated in the May 2018 challenge came from a variety of disciplines, including civil, computer science, electrical, industrial systems and mechanical engineering, to make the car a reality. Computer engineering student Juan Vasquez, the team’s new captain, was one of the team members who worked on the car’s systems integration, engineering the car’s different components to work in concert.

“I worked on the CAN (controller area network) bus team, which is all about how the car’s different systems talk to one another to do what we want,” Vasquez said. “We’ll be going in and tackling new problems based on what we learned from this last year and making it better.”

In the same way the engineers will work to better integrate the vehicle’s systems, they’ll work to strengthen and build their relationships with one another through team social events. According to Talebpour, managing such a large team of multidisciplinary engineers is challenging as students with different engineering backgrounds can struggle to communicate with one another or understand the larger picture. However, he said the team’s management leaders plan to make the challenge of interdisciplinary communication a priority, and coming together to meet such challenges head on is a hallmark of the Aggie Spirit.

“This success shows the dedication Aggies have when they take on a serious challenge like this,” Talebpour said. “There is no way we could be here if we didn’t have dedicated students, and that dedication is what surprised me the most and is what I am proudest of.”

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