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Could Autonomous Cars Give IndyCar Drivers A Run For Their Money?

Last year saw a surreal Indy 500 without fans. But researchers were already working on the truly unimaginable: an IndyCar race with no drivers.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge, the world’s first head-to-head, high-speed autonomous race, arrives at the IMS this month to prepare for its turn on the bricks on October 23.

The IAC is a partnership between the IMS and Energy Systems Network, an Indy-based advanced-energy nonprofit. The original idea was to pit different college programs against each other in developing a racecar that could complete 20 laps around the 2.5-mile IMS oval in under 25 minutes (no pit stops) for a $1 million prize. But rather than do a traditional one-car time trial, organizers decided to spice things up with a full-speed, wheel-to-wheel race. “You can’t just do something small at the Speedway,” says Paul Mitchell, president of Energy Systems Network.

The idea is based on the DARPA Challenge, a 150-mile, off-road race for the earliest autonomous vehicles. In the first event in 2004, no car made it farther than 8 miles. The winner of the 2005 follow-up, a team from Stanford University, took almost seven hours to complete 132 miles.

The tech has advanced to the point where researchers believe these IAC machines will be able to navigate traffic at speeds approaching 180 mph.

In order to achieve that speed, the teams will modify a real IndyCar chassis, a Dallara IL-15 akin to those used in the Indy Lights series, manufactured right across 16th Street from the IMS. The versions provided to the teams will be tricked out with radar, lidar, and optical cameras that help bring the total value of each car to $1 million.

Despite all the fancy tech and obvious futuristic implications of the IAC, these cars will still run on one tank of old-fashioned gasoline. 

 University teams from 14 states and 11 countries on four continents signed up for the challenge, totaling 31 entrants—two shy of the traditional 33. However, Mitchell says that as the competition has progressed, several teams have dropped out or consolidated. 

Mitchell says the biggest challenge for teams and organizers alike has been figuring out a way to do this during the pandemic. The competition officially kicked off in February 2020, just as COVID-19 was starting to spread. Like every other industry, the solution was to take the IAC online. Ansys, an engineering software company and IAC sponsor, developed a computer simulator that enables researchers to dial in their gear. Microsoft provided the cloud capacity for teams all over the world to collaborate over Teams—just like the rest of us.   

In many ways, the IAC is a throwback to the track’s origins. Long before it evolved into a cathedral of auto sport, the IMS was built as a testing ground for the local auto manufacturing industry to assess new technology. Since then, the Speedway has seen the debut of everything from the rearview mirror and seat belts to four-wheel hydraulic brakes and front-wheel drive.

The future of autonomous vehicles was already inevitable. Mitchell says the IAC is about much more than driverless cars. He says it will help improve high-speed automation on everything from drones to manufacturing assembly lines to machines that review samples of drugs during the discovery process. Further, he says it will keep both the track and Indiana on the forefront of technological innovation.  

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