Democratizing Research Access to Self-Driving Cars
Meghan Brown posted on November 18, 2016 |

Many of us can’t wait until fully autonomous cars arrive to chauffeur us around, and the engineers of the world are striving to make this vision a reality.  But there are some very high barriers to entry for autonomous vehicle research – chief among them: cost and time.  These issues can make it difficult for new players to get involved, meaning some truly innovative ideas may never make it to the table.

Automotive companies are doing a lot of the R&D work right now, and while they have made some impressive advances, most of this is on proprietary systems. While the auto industry is making decent progress toward true driverless cars, many independent and academic researchers worry that the lack of open testbeds will become a bottleneck to innovation. 

There are no doubt many engineers and researchers outside the auto industry with great ideas for improvements or new avenues of research, but who often don’t have access to testing facilities where they can assess the feasibility of these ideas. That includes engineering students, who can be especially limited in their ability to study connected and automated systems.

This Lincoln MKZ is an open connected and automated vehicle research platform, or open CAV, at the University of Michigan. The CAV offers an open testbed for academic and industry researchers to rapidly test self-driving and connected vehicle technologies at Mcity, an urban and suburban testing environment for advanced mobility vehicles operated by U-M's Mobility Transformation Center. The Lincoln will be joined by two Kia Souls equipped as open CAVs in coming months. (Image courtesy of Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering.)
This Lincoln MKZ is an open connected and automated vehicle research platform, or open CAV, at the University of Michigan. The CAV offers an open testbed for academic and industry researchers to rapidly test self-driving and connected vehicle technologies at Mcity, an urban and suburban testing environment for advanced mobility vehicles operated by U-M's Mobility Transformation Center. The Lincoln will be joined by two Kia Souls equipped as open CAVs in coming months. (Image courtesy of Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering.)

Open and Connected Autonomous Vehicles

The University of Michigan (U-M) wants to change this, making it easier for non-auto-industry researchers to pursue this technology with their open connected and automated vehicle (CAV) research platforms: a Lincoln MKZ and two Kia Souls.

These research vehicles are equipped with a full complement of sensors including lidar, radar and cameras, as well as other features such as an operating system.  An open development platform for connected vehicle communications is also planned for the future.

The first open CAV is a Lincoln MKZ sedan, powered by PolySync's autonomy platform that provides the foundation for rapid driverless vehicle development. Two Kia Soul compact crossovers will join the Lincoln, both of which will have the new PolySync Open Source Car Control kit installed, enabling complete "drive by-wire" control.

(Image courtesy of Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering.)

(Image courtesy of Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering.)

MTC will also add dedicated short-range communications capabilities to the vehicles to support the intersection of connected and automated vehicle control and allow development of connected vehicle applications. With these capabilities, vehicles will be able to anonymously and securely "talk" to each other via wireless communications similar to Wi-Fi to improve safety.


Autonomous Vehicle Testing

These open CAVs are based out of U-M’s Mcity, a simulated urban and suburban environment for testing autonomous vehicles.  The CAVs here will be available for the students participating in the TechLab at Mcity.  Led by Michigan Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), the TechLabs program is an experiential learning incubator that matches early-stage start-ups with engineering and technology students who want to apply their classroom education to practical technology development.

Mcity at the University of Michigan. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
Mcity at the University of Michigan. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)

“These research platforms will change the way we do our work," said Jessy Grizzle, director of robotics and professor of engineering at U-M. "The cars are far too expensive and hard to maintain for a control expert or a perception expert to own one of their own, just to test out their area of specialty. Now they can work on the car with others and realize their dreams."

Carrie Morton, deputy director of U-M’s MTC, added, “By providing a platform for faculty, students, industry partners and start-ups to test connected and automated vehicle technologies, open CAVs will break down technology barriers and dramatically speed up innovation. We're democratizing access to automated vehicle technology for research and education."

University of Michigan’s Mcity vehicle testing environment. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
University of Michigan’s Mcity vehicle testing environment. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)

Autonomous Vehicle Research Opportunities for Students

From a research perspective, the open CAVs are valuable tools because they are completely adaptable for different outcomes and research objectives.  “Researchers can bring in their own hardware—swap out any sensor they'd like. Or they can create advanced controls to take advantage of various sensor technologies already on the vehicles. Then they have the ability to explore how it works in a real mobility system at Mcity," said MTC director and professor of mechanical engineering, Huei Peng.

From the educational perspective, having access to these vehicles will provide undergraduate and graduate students with great opportunities for hands-on exploration of advanced mobility systems.  Faculty and students are already starting the work necessary to build on these vehicles and allow them to operate without a driver.  U-M also plans to offer a course centered around the CAVs sometime in the near future.

"The open CAVs lend our students a unique opportunity," said Jay Ellis, an instructor for U’M’s TechLab. "They will be able to rapidly develop technology, while also advancing proposed solutions for the companies participating in TechLab. This is a model of applied learning which will be a key driver for innovation."

For more information on autonomous vehicles, check out the University of Michigan’s TechLab at Mcity website, or read our article on What Tech Will It Take to Put Self-Driving Cars on the Road?

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