After a journey that involved a crash, a dead battery, and late-night coding sprints, a Virginia Tech engineering team took home a third place finish in the first year of an autonomous vehicle competition held by Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and General Motors.
Student-led Victor Tango AutoDrive was the sole team — out of eight total collegiate design teams from the U.S. and Canada — to successfully complete all three portions of the AutoDrive Challenge, held at General Motors Desert Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona.
The challenges were based on different aspects of driving that are basic for humans, but require complex perception, navigation, and behavior algorithms for a self-driving car, such as stopping at stop signs or staying in lane lines.
Currently, fully autonomous cars do not yet exist. By hosting the AutoDrive competition, General Motors and SAE are further catalyzing development of technology that may one day lead to entirely self-driving cars — a future possibility that can only be achieved with intensive research and rigorous testing.
The road to Yuma
For Victor Tango AutoDrive Team, the road to Yuma itself was the first challenge.
“It is really an underdog success story,” said Andy Cohen, a senior from Crozet, Virginia, studying mechanical engineering and a member of the controls subteam and the business subteam lead.
Weeks prior to competition, the team was modifying their competition-provided 2017 Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle when a member of the team pressed the wrong pedal while switching out of drive and accidentally crashed the vehicle into the garage door of their testing lab, located in a parking garage near the University Gateway Center.
“We weren’t sure if it was going to be totaled or whether the $100,000 of hardware we had mounted on the roof was destroyed,” Cohen said. “This was a really scary moment for us. This was our worst nightmare imaginable.”
They assessed the damage and declared the incident “a minor setback,” Cohen said. With a few fixes, they were back up and running in a week’s time.
Then the battery died. They tried charging the electric vehicle at stations all over campus and a Chevrolet dealership, and found that not only had it died, it would no longer charge. With three weeks left to competition and local dealerships and specialists unsure how to fix the car, their only option was to send it back to General Motors in Detroit, Michigan.
The team was left to wait. With no information on the status of their car, the team had to make an executive decision — they were not going to be able to compete. They sent a letter to General Motors citing safety risks — even if they got their car back in time, they would need dozens of hours of testing to ensure the safety of the students operating the vehicle from inside.
Despite the hours, stress, and late nights already poured into the competition, the team didn’t think it could be done, and the window closed on the first year of the AutoDrive competition.
“The next half-week was probably the most blissful experience we’ve had of our lives,” Cohen said, reminiscing on the newfound time team members had. “It was almost a bittersweet feeling when, later that week, we got this out-of-the-blue notice from [General Motors] and they say, ‘We’ve fixed your car, we’re sending it back tomorrow.’”